Highbrow Cinema Finds a Niche

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Highbrow Cinema Finds a Niche

Multiplex cinemas might have upgraded the contemporary theater culture in Korea in terms of facilities, but they have failed dismally in providing quality films to attract audiences with diverse tastes. Instead, the new motion picture culture promises their audiences an entertainment package; the facilities are meant to intensify the experience of viewing blockbuster action films, not diversify.

The multiplex cinemas, of course, were set up to multiply the number of audiences and they do this by satisfying the lowest common denominator in public taste. Most of their clientele go to the movies as an act of escape and like to think of films as a complete departure from reality. As a result, there seems to be no one catering to people who enjoy films as a form of art or as an extension of life. For discerning film buffs who have better reasons to go the cinema than for the pleasure of sitting on a high-back love seats, the experience of visiting a cinema that focuses on the setting rather than the film can be little irritating. So, for those interested in more than the latest formulaic offering at the multiplex cinemas, here is a list of theaters in Seoul that provide alternatives to the usual fare.

Korean Film Archive

Located in the same complex as the Seoul Arts Center south of the Han River, this non-profit organization specializes in collecting and preserving audio-visual materials produced in Korea. The Korean Film Archive has films, videotapes and a large number of film-related publications, all maintained under the care of professional conservators. It is also one of the few data banks based in Korea where you can find a thorough review of historical footage and other visual sources. Apart from the visual archive, the institute also has a humble-sized projection room that is open to private screenings of short and experimental films.

Starting last month, the institute started to offer a special presentation of famous Korean films with English subtitles. On May 12, the KFA will screen Park Chan-wook's "Joint Security Area," last year's box office hit about four sentry guards from South and North Korea stationed at the border between the two countries. The event, which runs through December, is also a rare opportunity to appreciate Korean classics that are usually only available during special festivals. For more information on the KFA's activities and screening schedules, call 02-732-5611 (English service available).

Artsonje Center

A mecca in the avant-garde art scene in Korea, this multi-functional cultural space has an art shop, a restaurant called DAL, a visual library, a gallery and a cinematheque in the basement.

Although it only offers about 200 seats, the Arthall in Artsonje Center offers an atmosphere and facilities that are perfect for academic symposiums and small events. This is probably the reason why this theater has been hosting half of the city's small film festivals since it opened in 1998. Starting from their inaugural event "Writing on the Wall," a festival devoted to contemporary Australian Literature and Film, the Artsonje has hosted the 1st and 2nd Seoul Queer Film Festivals, the Seoul Documentary Festival and the Festival for the Physically Challenged. Most events held in Artsonje uses films as a source of cultural activism. The theater prioritizes education as the main goal of the films and its selection tends to be pedagogic at times.

Organized by the Goethe Institute of Seoul, the Arthall is currently hosting a Retrospective of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the forerunner of new German cinema who died in 1984. The Retrospective started on Friday and will run until May 13th. All films to be screened are in German with Korean and English subtitles.

Located amidst the museum ghetto near Sagan-dong in central Seoul, Artsonje can be reached at 02-733-8945 (Korean only).


Located in the Gwanghwamun district, where it is surrounded by highbrow institutions like the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, The Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art and Jundong Theater, Cinecube Cinema targets fans of animation and foreign art films. Describing itself as a "multi-plenum" cinema, this theater opened last December offers modern facilities like those of other multiplex theaters located in Kangnam.

What makes it exceptional is its tasteful selections of films and its ability to maintain a fine balance between quality and entertainment. Aside from hosting events like the upcoming Seoul Human Rights Film Festival, which places emphasis on the academic approach to viewing films, the theater also presents light animation features and Asian independent films that are not available in mainstream cinemas.

The success of Cinecube is probably due to the fact that it is owned and managed by Baekdu Daegan, a distribution and production company based in Seoul. Run by the filmmaker Lee Kwang-mo, who directed "Beautiful Days," Baekdu Daegan began importing foreign art films in 1994, and their list of imports include films like "A Pornographic Affair" and "The Taste of Cherry."

The Cinecube is currently screening "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Prince and Princess." For more information, call 02-747-7782 (English service available).

Hypertech Nada

This theater opened in Daehak-ro last August and is devoted exclusively to experimental art films. Located inside the Dongsung Arts Center, one of the local cultural institutions featuring a diverse representation of art, Hypertech Nada often presents classic foreign films, which could not previously be shown in Korea as a result of either political censorship or because of the film's unfamiliar subject matter.

The theater is currently screening the 1950's classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour." For more information, contact 02-3672-0181 (English service available).

by Park Soo-mee

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