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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Wonju's Academy Theater

While Korea keeps mass producing movie theater 'chaebolplexes'*, old landmarks keep disappearing one by one. The very last hidden gem lies in Wonju's center, one block away from the Minsok Pungmul Market. Built in 1963, Academy Theater closed its doors in 2006, but over the past few years, citizens have been involved in its revival as a cultural experience many cities would die to propose.

Forget home cinema: this is the home of cinema, complete with the owner's quarters above the theater. And this is not your usual, overly sanitized and storytold, clinically urban-regenerationed space, but a genuine time capsule that preserved, beyond its walls, a unique atmosphere, details that make all the difference; whole rows of seats from the origins, an actual silver screen, ancient projectors and accessories, vantage points for the police to monitor the audience, even a pool overlooked by a wall featuring in 3D Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (as close to the originals as that cult statue of Cristiano Ronaldo)...

... or this incredible ticket booth:

We learned from Steve Shields** that back in early 1976, when he went there, this ticket booth didn't have ondol but a stove, with an exhaust pipe to the street "belching horrible black smoke and noxious fumes. The ondol in this photo, as scary as it looks, was a marked improvement."

Steve also confirmed that the police monitored the audience, but "those cops were usually plain clothes. In any event, there were armed soldiers everywhere on the streets guarding against NK infiltrators. Always on the lookout for hair length violation too. We learned to simply mind our own business, behave properly."

Generations of citizens laughed, cried, and more or less 'properly' kissed in this Academy, now the sole survivor among the five movie theaters that were built in Wonju between 1945 and 1969***. The army base one, Gunin Geukjang, disappeared in 1996. The other four dotted the C-road (now Pyeongwon-ro), which logically became known as Cinema Road. But in 2006, they all closed: one year before, the first multiplex had landed in the city. Singonggan and the oldest of them all, Wonju Theater, were destroyed in 2008. The youngest one, Munhwa Theater, disappeared in 2015. Saving Academy Geukjang became an emergency.

I'm not talking therapeutic relentlessness: this landmark doesn't have to compete with Wonju multiplexes, nor with its nondescript facilities (e.g. Chiak Art Center or Baekun Art Hall). It will naturally and simply bring something a 355,000 citizen-strong city needs to make full cultural sense, but can never build from scratch. Not a time capsule stuck in the past, but a future-proof place all generations will love and feel proud of. From an urbanism point of view as well, that's a no brainer - just look at the map.

And there's a much greater potential than for a place like La Pagode, the very special movie theater I went to decades ago in Paris, closed for years and now in a miserable state, but on the right track to be renovated: Academy Geukjang is much bigger and open; a major landmark on a major axis. I loved to see the passion among the citizens, and from the Wonju Media Center. I will love to see Wonju youth, and people from much further away flock to it.

Seoul Village 2020
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** As he reacted to my post on Korea Heritage Society's Facebook page.
*** useful context from "'원주 마지막 단관 극장' 아카데미극장…"보존해야"" (Yonhap News Agency 20170926)

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