Korean Film Archive: Theater, museum and library

Korean Film Archive: Theater, museum and library

Whether you're a film buff or just a freeloader, all you need is in one cool, shiny building
"Honey, you wouldn't be able to handle me in full color." [Film still from "Sung Chun-hyang" (성춘향]

Long before Korean film developed its indie rep for extreme violence (see: Lady Vengeance), dark sexuality (see: The Housemaid) and swallowing live octopus (see: Oldboy), there was a golden era of bouffants and pensive romance that has since been forgotten.

Forgotten by everyone that is, except by cinematic treasure hunters combing the vaults of the Korean Film Archive (KOFA). 

Located in the sprawling glass-covered Digital Media City, which has been dubbed the world's first media complex, KOFA's shiny exterior houses a trio of free theaters, a futuristic-looking museum and a well-stocked film library for anyone looking to immerse themselves in Korea's cinematic traditions. 

KOFAMovie night at your neighborhood theater is a little different in Digital Media City.

Free movies 

The most popular attraction is the Cinematheque KOFA and its three theaters, the largest of which can seat 328. Unlike most movie theaters, this place is completely free, although tickets are dispensed in what is largely a ceremonial gesture.

"We get about 4,500 visitors a month," says Min Byung-Hyun, who works at the Korean Film Archive office. 

"We don't just screen Korean films, although many of the films are Korean classics. We cover everything from domestic and foreign classics to art films and independent films."  

Unfortunately, the Korean films rarely come with English subtitles.

"We used to have a program called 'Darcy Paquet's Korean Classics'," says Min. "Every other month, film critic Darcy Paquet would screen Korean films with subtitles and commentary. Back then we had quite a few international visitors, too." 

Due to budget constraints the program had to be discontinued, but there is talk of it returning next year. 

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Meanwhile, it's not as though the Cinematheque lacks movies for non-Korean viewers. 

Screenings in November included documentary films "Monterey Pop," "Journey from Zanskar," "Narita: Heta Village," and "Hoop Dreams," as well as more mainstream fare like "Source Code" and "Billy Elliot." 

And for December, the Cinematheque will be holding a Kihachi Okamoto marathon, with all films supported by English subtitles. 

Check the screening schedule here, and look up their films at KMDb, the KOFA-run online database for Korean films. 

KOFAEnjoy the familiar hush that plagues underrated museums all over the world.

Movie museum

As the only film museum in Seoul, the Korean Film Museum initially presents itself like a crash course in Korean film history. 

Although the text is displayed in Korean, an audio guide -- available in English, Japanese and Chinese -- will walk you through the video displays and photo collages. 

You begin with the first Korean film ever made, on through Korean independence film and the heyday of Korean films in the 1960s, with frequent but worthy digressions into related topics that don't quite fit into the timeline. 

For example, there is a presentation on archetypal women in Korean cinema -- the classic beauty, the mother, the schoolgirl, and of course the villain character, the siren. 

"Mothers in the 1960s were warm and pleasant but noisy at the same time," according to the audio guide, and from what you can see of Korean film and TV today, it seems like at least one archetype has survived the test of time. 

Some of the defining characteristics of the siren, on the other hand, are amusingly dated. The female villains usually possess "excessive material wealth, sexual desire and jealousy." 

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The museum also contains an interactive section where you can watch something in the silent film theater modeled after Korea's first cinema, the Wongak-sa. 

Or you can play with the toys -- zoetropes, phenakistoscopes, and other relevant optical illusions that illustrate the principal of film and animation. 

There's also a separate annex for kids. 

The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, and closes an hour earlier on Saturday and Sunday.

As with the Cinematheque, everything is free except for parking. 

kofaIf our school libraries had looked like this, we would have studied harder.

Well-stocked library

Finally, the Film Reference Library, on the second floor, allows visitors to watch and take out digitally remastered classics and a wide variety of DVD films both old and new, foreign and domestic. 

There is also a fair -- about 20,000 strong -- collection of film reference books, magazines, and encyclopedias. 

And while the bright lights, the desks, and the bookshelves kill the mood, you are now free to kick back and enjoy a movie from their library.

You can search for movies with titles and keywords, of course, but you can also search by genre, year, and type. 

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A quick perusal of the most popular titles yields a few surprises. 

Although the museum does a lot to make classic and independent films more widely appealing, given the arty, esoteric character of the theater downstairs, the fifth most popular movie at the library is the fourth film in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, with other popular blockbusters, such as "Iron Man 2" and even "Twilight: Eclipse" scattered throughout the top 20 titles.  

"We have a wide variety of visitors," says Min. "The older generation tends to watch the classics. We also get students, and people working in the film industry, or in criticism." 

Variety is never a bad thing -- this just means you'll find it easier to get your paws on the film of your choice. 

You can view movies alone, with a friend, or in a group, but leave your kids behind. The library is off linits to under-15s. 

The library is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Sunday, and closes an hour earlier on Saturday and Sunday. It is also closed on the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

1602 DMC, Sangam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul(서울특별시 마포구 상암동 DMC단지 1602);+82 2 3153 2001; www.koreafilm.or.kr

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Violet Kim is a freelance writer for CNN Travel.

Find her online @pomography.

Read more about Violet Kim