Bringing cinema to the countryside

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Bringing cinema to the countryside

South Chungcheong province
The sounds of sobbing are everywhere in the darkened middle-school gymnasium, as on the movie screen, a boy rushes back into the arms of his mother, having suffered mistreatment from his father, who is married to another woman.
As if they’d been waiting for the moment to cry, women in the audience for “Miwodo Dasihanbeon” (Bitter, But Once Again), a Korean film from 1968, take handkerchiefs out of their pockets, wipe their tears with them and pass them to their neighbors. Most in the audience are elderly, but there are also some women in their 30s and 40s.
“It’s such a sad movie,” Na Jeong-suk, 75, says after the screening as she makes her way out of the gymnasium, still sniffing. “How could a mother part with her child? Young women in the city should watch this film to learn family values.”
Almost 10 minutes after the lights have come up, Oh Sun-ja still sobs, leaning against her chair. Her eyes are red from crying, and her shoulders are still shaking from emotion. “The last time I saw the film was when I was 16,” Ms. Oh says. “I thought it was great then. I am 50 now, but the movie still touches my heart.”
Ms. Oh, a housewife, made the half-hour trip from her home in Buyeo on this Saturday afternoon after learning that her favorite film would be screened in Seocheon, at the Donggang Middle School gymnasium. There are no movie theaters in Buyeo, and this was the first time in years that Ms. Oh had seen a film outside her home.
“Miwodo Dasihanbeon” was brought to Seocheon by the government-run Korean Film Archive’s Traveling Cinema program, launched four years ago to bring vintage and contemporary films to towns that don’t have movie theaters. Yu Seung-hyeon, a managing technician for the program, thinks a Seoul audience would have been less responsive to the 1968 film.
Indeed, the reaction of small-town audiences is what Mr. Yu says most differentiates these screenings from the ones in the downtown Seoul theaters in which he used to work, where “make me laugh” seemed to be the attitude.
“The expectations are very different,” he says. “In Seoul, people want to see black-and-white, classic films. But if you go to the suburbs they are all dying to see the new releases, which we don’t even have sometimes.” The Seocheon screening was an exception, because it was arranged specifically for elderly citizens.
The Traveling Cinema program was created to serve democratic cultural ideals by showing films in parts of the country that are lacking in cultural options ―typically, in small towns like Seocheon, with its population of fewer than 26,000. Since the program began in 2000, museums and theaters in Seoul have developed similar programs.
There are more than 800 movie theaters in Korea, but most are in major cities. Most counties don’t have a single movie theater; karaoke and TV dramas are the main entertainment options. In some communities, such as Ulleungdo island, where the Korean Film Archive held a screening last year at a school playground, there is not even a video store.
In Seocheon, where more than half of the population lives off farming and tourism (bird watching is the tourist attraction), there is one drive-in theater, but no regular theater. To see new films, the county’s younger residents usually make the half-hour trip by bus to Gunsan.
Lee Ji-eun, a 13-year-old Donggang Middle School student, says that when there’s a film she wants to see, she generally waits for the video to come out. More often, she says, she ends up watching it on TV years later.
“Even if there are theaters in counties, they are usually very small,” Mr. Yu says. “But young people would rather watch movies in big multiplex theaters surrounded by loud sounds. So theaters in small towns go out of business after few years.”

Cinema-deprived towns seem to become festive when the Traveling Cinema team arrives. Huge placards are hung in the street to advertise the films; people arrive hours early to secure a good seat at outdoor screenings. The Seocheon screening of “Miwodo Dasihanbeon,” in fact, started an hour earlier than scheduled, because people in the audience were grumbling that they’d waited long enough. During the screening, women in the Donggang Middle School cafeteria were busy preparing food for a reunion of Donggang graduates, which had been scheduled to coincide with the screening.
“At first, when we contacted district offices for screenings, a lot of them just hung up,” says Gwon Sun-ho, another technician on the Traveling Cinema team. “They say some peddlers tried to rip off the villagers by showing free films and forcing them to buy expensive medicine afterward.”
Since the Traveling Cinema program began, Mr. Yu and his crew have visited 97 counties across Korea, showing films to more than 50,000 people. For a 2001 screening of the spy thriller “Shiri” in Gangjin, South Jeolla province, nearly 6,000 people came out to see a movie that had been released two years earlier.
Earlier this year, the team held an outdoor screening of the 1990 drama “Seopyeonje” in a reed bed in Seocheon, the same place where a scene from the film “Joint Security Area” was shot. On Cheongdo island last year, there was a screening in a community center parking lot.
Currently, Mr. Yu’s team also holds screenings for the visually impaired; audience members are given movie scripts written in Braille.
Due to the lack of ideal facilities, it’s very common for the team to show movies in district offices, churches and welfare centers. So far there haven’t been any major disruptions, although Mr. Yu says that once in a while, intoxicated audience members will scream for the volume to be turned down.
The team’s most memorable screening, both men agree, was of the 1960s drama “Mabu” (The Coachman) three years ago in Naewon, a secluded mountain village in Cheongsong County, and one of the few towns left in Korea that don’t have electricity. Mr. Yu and three colleagues spent two hours hiking up the mountain, hauling a film projector, a screen and a generator borrowed from the Korea Electric Power Corporation.
“It was really something,” he says. “There were six families living in the neighborhood, and everyone came. We all sat around and watched the movie together outside. It was the first time since the program began that an entire village came to see our film.”
He continues, “Then when we ordered soup in a restaurant, the ingredients had all gone bad because they didn’t have a refrigerator.”
After years of traveling, there’s one thing the team misses: going to a movie theater.
“We barely watch movies,” Mr. Gwon says. “We just don’t have time.”

by Park Soo-mee
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