Moviegoing outside the mainstreamEvery day feels like a dream when you’re watching movie after movie. Especially when the films hark back to the glamour days of Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, even the silent comedies of Buster Keaton.
The avant-garde visions of some of today’s arthouse directors can induce a dream state, too ― though of a different kind.
Where in Seoul can you go for such outside-the-mainstream cinematic experiences?
Alternative cinema, from vintage classics to cutting-edge experimentation, can be found in Seoul if you look for it. You’ll usually find it in venues seating fewer than 200 ― some seating only a few dozen. They can be found from the heart of the Hongdae University district to the posh Apgujeong area.
These theaters tend to come and go, as Seoul’s alternative movie scene is still developing. Those still in business, however, are creating programs and festivals for film buffs. Foreigners can even find places to see Korean movies with English subtitles.
Elsewhere in Seoul...
JoongAng Cinema (pictured)
In Myeong-dong, (02) 776-8866
One of the larger theaters in Korea, this one has offered short films since April. The films screen Monday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m. “It's not a large audience, but we get people in the know,” the programmer said. Currently running is “Michin Kimchi” (Crazy Kimchi).
Ganghwamun, (02) 747-7782
Managed by Baekdu Daegan, a film distribution and production company, Cinecube offers modern facilities and alternative movies. In September, they will be showing “Buena Vista Social Club,” a documentary about Cuban music.
Inside Dongsung Arts Center
Since the opening of Dongsung Arts Center, one of the screening rooms has been devoted to arthouse films. That room is called Hypertheque Nada. About 1,000 have subscribed to membership. Now showing is “Baramnan Gajok” (A Good Lawyer’s Wife).
Inside the KNTO building
(02) 729-9497, www.knto.or.kr
Screens Korean films with English subtitles Tuesdays at 4 p.m. Supported by the Korean Film Commission. Special screenings for 10 or more people can be arranged. “The Day a Pig Fell into a Well,” a realist drama, is screening in August, followed by “Bicheonmoo,” a martial arts film, in September.
Korea Film Archive
In the Seoul Arts Center complex
(02) 732-5611, www.koreafilm.org
This not-for-profit organization has a library with visual materials produced in Korea, or relating to Korea, as well as a small, comfortable theater. The archive is expected to resume its screenings of Korean films with English subtitles.
In Nonhyeon-dong, (02) 545-3800
Screening room No. 3 is devoted to arthouse movies. Currently showing are “Swimming Pool” and “Dogville.”
Hongdae University area
(02) 325-5575, www.cinemachoo.co.kr
Specializes in: Foreign films; black-and-white classics
Seating: Upright, nonreclining chairs
Theater Choo is one of those places I always mean to go to, but never do. So my cinema fest starts with the elusive Choo, and a 7:20 p.m. screening of “The Gold Rush,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Of course, when I look for Choo, I can’t find it. The cinema is tucked in a corner, and after wandering around, I look up and realize I’m right in front of the three-story building. The theater is on the lower level, past a cafe.
The lone ticket-taker asks if I’m a member, then sadly tells me the membership drive is over. For 25,000 won ($21), I could have had free admission for six months. Today, I pay 5,000 won. I buy bottled water and take the best seat in a dark screening room ― center, not too far back and not too far forward. You see, I have the place to myself.
Several minutes later, the movie starts up. It’s a DVD, one from Theater Choo’s thousand-title collection, with Korean subtitles, projected onto a large screen. The ticket-taker also takes a seat. The movie is part of the “Memorize 2” festival, which includes 11 classic foreign films.
It’s a good thing I went, because Theater Choo as we know it is coming to an end. “It’s really hard to maintain an arthouse cinema,” says Choo San-sok, a stage actor and the son of the theater’s founder, Choo Song-woong. The theater’s last official program is in September, a tribute to director Eric Rohmer, a prominent figure in the French New Wave.
Afterwards, the DVD library will still be open, and the theater will be used as a performance art space. “We have a community of devoted movie maniacs, and we will continue to offer occasional film programs,” Mr. Choo says.
Verdict: For now, they’ll run movies even if the audience is down to one. The selection is excellent, possibly due the taste of the founder, Choo Song-woong, a Korean actor and film critic.
Seoul Art Cinema
Below Artsonje gallery
(02) 720-9782, www.cinematheque.seoul.kr
Specializes in: Foreign film festivals
Seating: Cushioned auditorium seating
The first couple times I went to Seoul Art Cinema were for a lecture by Neville Brody, a font designer based in England, and a Crying Nut concert. The theater is on the lower level of the gallery, Artsonje, but has a separate entrance. At each event, a long line of Seoul’s hipsters wound from the basement all the way to the top floor, and sometimes outside, even in the rain. The space is set up like an auditorium, with seating for 218. The view is excellent from any seat.
Eventually, I went there for film festivals and special screenings. Without fail, there are crowds on weekends. For this article, I went on a drizzling weekday night to see “Great Expectations” (the ticket was 6,000 won), part of the British Film Festival.
“Don’t expect a lot of people,” the cinema’s public relations officer told me, but surprisingly, the theater was half-packed, mostly with young professionals. They were engaged in the movie and laughed loudly at the funny parts. When the end credits rolled, the crowd dawdled, as if loath to leave the comfort of the cinema. Or maybe it was the rain.
(Note: the British film festival has ended. Currently underway is “Feminist Video Activism,” which runs until Tuesday.)
Verdict: Before the film, check out the gallery. The combination of art and film will inspire intellectual musings.
Near Gyeongbok Palace
(02) 734-9565, www.seoulselection.com
Specializes in: Korean films with English subtitles
Seating: Seats a few dozen people around glass tables
On a rainy Wednesday, I blow into this cozy cafe and buy a cup of latte. The coffee is roasted at a nearby beanery. Physically, Seoul Selection is more of a hangout for expatriates than a theater; you can buy Korean books and DVDs here. The founder, Kim Hyung-geun, is a former movie critic. The movies are shown on site Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., with additional screenings at the nearby Kumho Museum of Art on Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.
“Welcome to a screening of ‘Save the Green Planet,’” Mr. Kim announces, before dimming the lights and turning on the flat-screen HDTV, set up with a surround-sound system, “Planet,” directed by Jang Jun-hwan and starring Shin Ka-kyun and Baek Yoon-shik, is a heartbreaking sci-fi kidnapping tale.
Verdict: The proprieters are available for discussions about the movies, making this place an educational forum for Korean movies.
Core Art Hall
Near the Starbucks in Jongro
(02) 739-9932, www.corecine.co.kr
Specializes in: Korean arthouse films
Seats: Regular cinema seating
“Why do you want to include us? We’re such a small place,” says a programmer when I call to get permission to take photos. Core Art Hall has two screening rooms that seat fewer than 150 each. Both have projection screens and solid sound systems. It’s cozy enough that when I walk upstairs to the theater, three men in suits in the front row have propped up their feet while waiting for “Baramnan Gajok” (A Good Lawyer’s Wife) to start. Directed by Im Sang-soo, the drama stars Moon So-ri and Hwang Jeong-min. Ticketing (7,000 won in the evenings) is on the first floor.
The cinema, run by the larger CineCore movie theater, usually focuses on one movie all week. “We get a lot of movie maniacs,” says the ticketing agent. “The crowd is totally different from the mainstream.” The theater sells microwavable popcorn (you can’t go wrong with the brand Act II), soda and snacks.
Verdict: The low ceiling adds to a good old theater experience in a small setting.
Near California Fitness Center in Apgu-jeong
(02) 3444-6640, www.theater2.co.kr
Specializes in: Foreign films
Seating: Cozy theater seats with hand rests that flip up for couples.
Who better to run a theater than the staff at Film 2.0, one of Korea’s premier movie magazines? In May, the magazine launched Theater 2.0 to show movies you normally won’t find at the larger theaters.
This posh theater is located in the lower level of a sleek building that includes two coffee shops, a hip magazine store and the Film 2.0 offices. Patrons often come early and snack on cake or salad. Beverages from the coffee shops can be brought into the theater. Flavored popcorn (including chicken-flavored) can be purchased from a vending machine on the lower level.
The staff refuses to seat latecomers. Ticket prices range from 5,000 won up, depending on the movie. The theater has just launched a festival featuring the French auteur Francois Ozon, which ends Aug. 28.
Verdict: If “Voulez vouz see a movie avec moi” is your type of line, this is the place to go. Since it’s in the center of Rodeo Drive, there are wine bars, cafes and karaoke aplenty for post-movie entertainment.
by Joe Yong-hee