Arthouse theater’s future in doubtKoreans are known for their love of movies, but until 2002, those who wanted to see more obscure art films by Carl Dreyer and Alain Resnais on the big screen were out of luck.
In the early 1990s, cinephile groups formed to satisfy the desire to see something other than Hollywood blockbuster fare, holding occasional video screenings. But they had to settle for tiny venues until Artsonje Center, run by the conglomerate Daewoo, agreed to rent its basement to the Korean Association of Cinematheques.
Then the Korean Film Archive and Korean Film Commission offered financial support that would go toward the lease of 170 million won ($140,000) a year. Seoul Art Cinema was thus born in May 2002.
Since its inception, the venue has been the center for everything art film-related. This year alone, 25 retrospectives have been planned, which is an “epochal success,” says Enkay Kim, secretary-general of the cinematheque association.
Next year, however, viewers will have to go elsewhere for their Jean Cocteau fix. Last month, Seoul Art Cinema staff received a fax from Artsonje Center that said the center would be undergoing a major renovation next year and so would not be renewing its lease with the theater in February.
Ten days before receiving the fax, the Seoul Art Cinema organizers had held a seminar about saving decent theaters for small art films. Nobody, however, thought that Seoul Art Cinema would have such concerns so soon.
“The thing we’ve feared the most has finally become reality,” says Kim Seong-uk, the programmer at Seoul Art Cinema. “If Seoul Art Cinema is gone, it means the whole community has nowhere to go. Seoul Art Cinema has meaning as a space itself, not just as a place to see a film.”
The theater’s box office displays a small sign attesting to its uncertain future, saying, “We’re sorry, but we’re not taking any more members at the moment.”
News about the theater’s closing soon reached local film lovers, and movie magazines produced prolific columns about the closing. Even the Democratic Labor Party asked the government last week to come up with a measure to save Seoul Art Cinema. The party said the government has done little to protect the local independent film scene.
Artsonje Center officials rebut rumors that they want to kick out the theater to get more rent from another tenant. Kim Hyoung-mi, a staff member at the center, says, “There is no doubt that the building needs a full-scale reconstruction. We feel sorry for Seoul Art Cinema. That’s why we gave them notice so early.”
In many ways, Seoul Art Cinema stands out in cinephile circles beyond its quirky fare. Its willingness to show films with English subtitles ― something theaters are reluctant to do because many Korean viewers find them annoying ― makes it an expatriate-friendly venue.
The cinema’s neighborhood, which contrasts with the rest of modern Seoul, also distinguishes it from the mega-multiplex theaters. Nestled in the center of the city in Sogyeok-dong, across from Insa-dong, one walks along an alley made of ancient stone walls from the Joseon Dynasty to reach the Artsonje Center, whose basement houses the cinema.
Artsonje Center’s basement was originally built as a multipurpose performance hall, complete with a movie screen, a wooden stage and about 240 seats, but the small screen makes the seats on the far side useless, so the actual seating is more like 200. The stage allows Seoul Art Cinema to play silent films accompanied by live music, just like they did in the old days.
The theater specializes in retrospectives of directors whose names may not easily register with the average moviegoer. For example, it’s now featuring one on Roberto Rossellini, the Italian godfather of neo-realism films.
“We make it our responsibility to share the joy and knowledge of watching works of directors who play an important part in world film history,” Mr. Kim says.
The lack of mainstream appeal also means a lack of box-office sellouts, but the top priority in selecting films is the quality, Mr. Kim says, with popularity and economics as secondary concerns.
This attitude has cultivated a devoted group of Seoul Art Cinema enthusiasts.
“The birth of Seoul Art Cinema was much appreciated as being the only place here where cinephiles can enjoy films that are hard to find,” says Baek Sang-hoon, a TV drama producer.
“Just like the French New Wave came about as aspiring directors studied film at the cinematheque, Seoul Art Cinema is the only place where Koreans can see the rise of directors with an avant-garde and experimental spirit,” he says.
Mr. Kim says he was heartened to find that many members coming to Seoul Art Cinema were just average film lovers, not film majors or fledgling directors.
Seoul Art Cinema’s secretary-general has seen how fans are devoted to the venue. “On days without screenings, we still have visitors, who are then disappointed to learn that there are no movies at the moment. They were willing to see any films that we show, demonstrating their faith in Seoul Art Cinema,” Ms. Kim says.
The theater works hard to keep that faith. For each retrospective or screening, it takes at least six months of planning and an average budget of 30 million won, according to Mr. Kim. For screenings that are both popular and acclaimed, such as the Akira Kurosawa retrospective this year, the theater breaks even, but there are only about five such screenings a year.
“We barely make both ends meet, and in most cases, we’re usually in the red. Screenings that take in only 5 million won but require a 30-million won budget are just so common,” Ms. Kim says.
Looking at other places
Since learning of the cinema’s closure, Ms. Kim has looked into other venues, but Mr. Kim, the programmer, is pessimistic. “How many places in Seoul are in a location that’s both central and culturally meaningful?” he asks.
Ms. Kim has considered some alternatives suggested by others, such as the Arirang Cine Center, a new publicly-run theater with three screens in Donam-dong, northern Seoul.
It’s not ideal, however. “We cannot run such retrospectives at some multiplex theater,” she says.
Considering that at least six months of planning are needed for a retrospective, Seoul Art Cinema is likely to be closed for part of next year even if it does find another home.
Seoul Art Cinema staff members are hoping for a miracle at this point that would allow them to stay.
“We’re trying to make another appeal to the Artsonje Center. As we see it, Seoul Art Cinema has made a considerable contribution to the center, so we’d like them to reconsider,” Ms. Kim says, “But at the moment, our prospects don’t seem to be so bright.”
by Chun Su-jin
Seoul Art Cinema is at the moment having a retrospective on Roberto Rossellini. Out of 16 films screened, 11 have English subtitles.
Seoul Art Cinema is best reached by taking subway line No. 3 to Anguk station, exit 1. For more information, call (02) 720-9782 or visit the Web site at www.cinematheque.seoul.kr.
Theater 2.0 focuses on having fun
At Theater 2.0, moviegoers must ring a bell to enter. At the door, Yun Yun-sang welcomes them with a bright smile. It’s a personal touch that’s unique to the only arthouse theater in southern Seoul.
Theater 2.0 sits in upscale Apgujeong-dong, within the vicinity of a number of multiplex theaters. No wonder Ms. Yun jokingly says, “We pick the movies that the multiplex theaters do not show.”
Being the smallest of its kind, with only 80 seats, Theater 2.0 celebrated its first anniversary on Thursday.
Ms. Yun says Theater 2.0 makes an effort to be inviting to all viewers. Their customers range in age from their 20s to their 50s.
“We don’t have an obsession to show only avant-garde and experimental films,” Ms. Yun says. “We try to show films that are fun as well as acclaimed.”
“Repatriation,” an independent documentary that was a big hit at Hypertheque Nada and Cine Cube, didn’t do well at all at Theater 2.0. “I guess Theater 2.0 enthusiasts love something more lively and fun,” Ms. Yun says.
Ms. Yun says the theater focuses on films that have newly opened but aren’t like the mainstream fare. Theater 2.0’s latest film was “Monster,” starring Charlize Theron.
Theater 2.0 is now holding a New Wave Japanese Movie Festival through July 29, showing eight films from four noteworthy Japanese directors: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Junji Sakamoto and Sabu.
Theater 2.0 is best reached by taking subway line No. 3 to Apgujeong station. For more information, call (02) 3444-3271.
All kinds of films are welcome
This chic arthouse theater in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, is the luckiest of its kind in Seoul. With Taekwang Group as its sponsor, Baekdu Daegan, one of the earliest moviegoer groups of Korea, was able to procure two screens in the basement of the group’s building. Thus were born Cine Cube and Art Cube in 2000.
Cine Cube is the most flexible arthouse theater. Last year, it was the only one of its kind to open “Taegukgi,” though it stopped screening after a few weeks, having attracted the fewest viewers in theaters nationwide. “I guess we have a certain group of cinephiles with their own definition of what Cine Cube has to be,” says Kim Eun-kyung, the managing director of Cine Cube.
To meet the Korean screen quota, Cine Cube has to compromise by showing films that they don’t necessarily want. Cine Cube is currently showing “My Mother the Mermaid,” a Korean mainstream film, while Art Cube is showing the Irish film “Bloody Sunday.”
“Cine Cube has an agenda that does not define itself as a theater that shows only avant-garde and difficult art films,” Ms. Kim says, “If a film is well-made, it can be at our theater if it’s mainstream. We try to show films that are sophisticated and classy, not necessarily independent and avant-garde films.” But that does not mean that Cine Cube pursues the mainstream. The theater has long been a home for small films from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, regardless of box-office success.
On July 10, the theater begins the Australian Film Festival, presenting nine feature films as well as several shorts.
Cine Cube is best reached by taking subway line No. 5 to Seodaemun or Gwanghwamun stations. For more information, call (02) 2002-7770.
Independence is key
At Hypertheque Nada, inside Dongsoong Art Center in Daehangno, northern Seoul, you can sit in President Roh Moo-hyun’s seat. All of the seats are named after people who made a cultural contribution, and the list changes every year.
Called Nada by its fans, the cinema has featured new art films as well as retrospectives. Jung Yoo-jung, who works at Nada, says, “We specialize in films that won recognition at international film festivals, the kind of films that cinephiles can only see at such festivals.”
Nada also directly imports films to open at the theater, like Peter Greenaway’s “Drowning By Numbers,” now showing. Later this year, the theater plans to show “Nobody Knows,” a Japanese film that drew much attention at this year’s Cannes festival.
Nada’s latest hits were “Repatriation,” a documentary by Kim Dong-won, and a retrospective on the Japanese master director Ozu Yasujiro, which drew so many viewers the lines had to double up.
Ms. Jung, who took part in the naming of the theater, explained that “Nada,” meaning “It’s me” in Korean, symbolizes the strong subjectivity of cinephiles, who are ready to select the movies they want to see, instead of blindly following the mainstream. Ms. Jung says Nada has seen a 20 percent increase in its audience since it opened in 2000.
Remaining true to its name, Nada will present a retrospective on Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who consistently raised metaphysical questions about God and man, life and death through his movies. Seven films are to be presented, without English subtitles.
Hypertheque Nada is best reached by taking subway line No. 4 to Hyehwa station, exit 1. For more information, call (02) 766-3390.