The thin steps up to the second floor university district bar in a busy area of Busan, South Korea had the distinct aroma of lemon polish and fish paste. “Osso isipsio!” (welcome!) The bartenders hollered in unison every time we ascended those last holy steps and entered Valhalla.
Once up the stairs, you took a right and that’s where it all happened. Gyu Ho, the bar manager, would be pulling at the taps like slot levers, usually wearing his navy blue cub scouts shirt as a uniform. The overhead lighting was spare, relying on the refraction of light bent from behind a row of colorful film images on the wall. The bartop was rectangular and occupied the center of the room. It allowed for both lounging and easy access to grab a drink and run. On the opposite side from the entrance were benches with tables and chairs lined against the exposed brick wall that led to a DJ booth. On the far side, beyond the bar, there was a little space for dancing and a stage with a drum set and some PA equipment. To the left of the bar was where we generally loitered. By the Corona themed foosball table and the two dart boards.
It is said that proximity + discretionary time + shared experience is the ideal formula for connecting with other humans. Many are most receptive to the formula in university. Everyone is in the same space, with the same free time and collectively stoned on the haughty high-cloud of learning.
But while eager in college, we haven’t yet suffered.
By the time Kino Eye came around we had more to add to the formula. South Korea wasn’t Plan A or even Plan B. The people I bonded with in Busan crash landed. We were almost a decade older than the university crowd and had been blessed with the first stomps of misfortune. We’d acquired the spare parts needed to begin the reclamation process. There were failed marriages, failed professions, failed families and failed gods. We arrived with an axe to grind and no sharpener. Having felt the first trembles of the promised land, we’d doubled back, burrowing out from the Sadducees thumb with some shrapnel in our torso. We were fork tongued and cynical, in need of the grace to rediscover forgiveness and ease.
The bartender’s name was Gyu Ho and he was the real deal. All glasses and gentleness and merit badges fastened to his shirt. “Uh. Matthew–Hyung…”, he’d begin (always using the Korean honorific of “older brother”), leaning across the bar while handing me my $3 Cass mug of beer. “Are you available to hike in the mountain this weekend? After hiking we will eat duck, it is Korean tradition Then,” He smiled, “We will drink makgeolli”. Makgeolli was a high voltage rice wine. Not the stuff to stumble down a cliff on. Koreans were wizards at shoe-horning the drink into almost any activity.
No one ever never said “no” to Gyu Ho.
In those days we helped keep Kino Eye afloat. Our five-night a week bamboozling combined with doggedly inviting anyone we met brought much of the customer base. The film theme and mellow vibe was just not what the expat scene was looking for. They liked bars that reminded them of home. With Heineken and the DropKick Murphys on the jukebox and chalk scarred pool tables. A mostly empty bar projecting a french film on the wall wasn’t exactly pulling the kids in off the street by their nose hairs.
I can’t recall scheduling a time to meet anyone at Kino Eye. When work ended, that’s where I went. When Saturday started, that’s where I went.
Kinships formed fast because friends were family. You spent days with them, weekends with them, evenings with them, vacations with them, holidays with them. Birthdays. Anniversaries. You name it. There were no alternatives. Traveling to modest fishing villages on the Yellow Sea. Sleeping under christmas trees with the yule log on the laptop. Eating octopus on the jetties. Spritzing out inky footnotes during rains.
Despite being a city of four million people, Busan felt a generation behind Seoul. When there isn’t much culture, you have no choice but to become it. There was no live music in the city. So we started bands. There were no DJs so we learned how. There were few movies, so we made our own. There were no parties, so we threw them (at Kino Eye). There was no craft beer, so we started a brewery. A few friends loved motorcycles, a week later there was a motorcycle gang. Given local traffic, this didn’t last long. But you get the drift. This collective expression added to the allure. I’ve tried to write the stories down but I just never do them any justice. It feels like I’m playing with finger puppets. Or making shadow animals on the wall.
I won’t start now.
Years later as the crew succumbed to routine and rearing it disbanded. A report surfaced that Kino Eye had finally become what we all hoped it one day would: a success. I was surprised at how I suddenly felt jealous and a little sad. So this is what it’s like to be a hipster. No wonder they look so unhappy. Kino Eye had arrived as THE place for the expat crowd and ESL teachers and happening locals to congregate. Live music during the week and dance parties on the weekends. A place to see and be seen.
Then in 2018 another report, from the lone member of our ten person team still in the game, albeit hobbling considerably. Now with two kids and a graying crop of hair: “nothing perfect lasts, lads”, he wrote. Kino Eye had closed.
Sundays were the only days it was closed when we lived there. But not for us. After all, where else would we go? The owner would open it up and serve half price beers as we screened international films not available anywhere else in the region. We’d order takeout and spend the day feeling as close to “home” as we ever would on the peninsula.
Where: Busan, South Korea, Kyungsung Dae District.
What to Drink: 4 tequila/jagger for 10,000 won. (aprox. $2.50 a piece).
When to go: Anytime it is open. 5pm – ? (bars close when patrons leave)
What to do: Kino Eye is an independent film themed bar, so tasty flicks are always playing. Best music selection in town. Plus darts & foosball & potentially a boisterous go-stop game in the far corner.