Seoul's last 1-screen cinema plays classic finale

Seoul's last old-style, one-screen cinema, soon to be knocked down and replaced by a hotel, played its final movie Wednesday — the Italian classic "The Bicycle Thief" — a moment so emotional for the theater operator that she publicly shaved her head in frustration.

The theater, which opened in 1964, had become a place where mostly elderly moviegoers gathered regularly to watch classic Hollywood and South Korean films and indulge in nostalgia for cinematic days gone by.

As huge multiplexes made it hard to compete financially, the Seodaemun Art Hall played up the one thing the newer theaters could never match — its age. But the theater's attempt to keep business alive based on that shared joy of nostalgia and a sense of community among its elderly patrons came to an end Wednesday.

"My heart is aching because I have to let (the theater) go like this," Kim Eun-ju, 39, the head of theater operator Hollywood Classic, said before having her head shaved. "Working here was the happiest time of my life."

The building venerates Hollywood royalty, with a hand-painted advertising board over the theater and big photos of American movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor hanging on the walls. Still, it also has a distinctly South Korean feel: No popcorn is sold here; only rice cakes favored by many elderly Koreans.

This glorification of the past is increasingly hard to find in the hustle and bustle of ultramodern Seoul, where older neighborhoods disappear constantly, replaced with construction sites throwing up gleaming glass and steel buildings housing apartments, hotels and offices.

Seoul officials approved plans to demolish the theater as early as August to build a high-rise hotel, hoping to create jobs and resolve a shortage of hotel rooms for foreign tourists. Seoul-based Glotel, the landlord of the theater building, declined to comment.

The theater's end has been hard to take for many of the workers and people who regularly watched movies here, hundreds of whom came Wednesday to see Italian director Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic. Most were in their 60s to 80s, and many expressed sadness.

"Old people have fewer places to go now," said Kim Ki-woong, a 70-year-old Seoul resident who visited the theater twice a week. He stood beneath the theater's billboard, which, instead of the usual hand-painted movie pictures, had a sign that read, "Please protect the culture of senior citizens."

After the movie ended, Kim Eun-ju, the theater operator, had her head shaved before moviegoers and reporters packing the theater hall. Several volunteer theater workers cried and embraced Kim after most of her hair was gone, shouting, "Stop it! Stop it!"

"I just want to let the people know how many happy moments this kind of culture can bring us," Kim said, wiping away tears with tissues.

Seoul now has no one-screen cinemas, Kim said, and fewer than 10 such old-style theaters are thought to be operating throughout South Korea.

In the 1980s, the theater was a hot spot for Hong Kong movies, with top stars such as Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat visiting on opening night and young moviegoers lining up to buy tickets.

But its popularity sharply declined when modern multiplex theaters came to South Korea in the 1990s, forcing it to screen previews or older films before focusing on classic movies like "Ben-Hur," ''Gone With the Wind" and "Roman Holiday."

"If we continued to maintain that theater, it would have been a historic site for Seoul," showing off the capital city's past landscape, culture commentator Ha Jae-keun said. "We need a policy to protect symbolic places in Seoul."

Kim's company has been operating at a loss because of low-priced tickets that cost only 2,000 won ($1.80), nearly one-fourth of what regular movie tickets cost. Still, she said she was satisfied that she had done something to help senior citizens.

"One day, an old couple, both suffering from Alzheimer's disease, came here. ... When I saw them walking hand-in-hand out of the theater, I realized I was doing the right thing," Kim said. "They looked so happy."

Seo Ji-min, a singer who made her debut at the theater in 1977 when it also hosted daily singing and dancing performances, was among several people who wept when Kim shaved her head.

"Why are they getting rid of this kind of historic place?" Seo asked. "I feel like there is a huge void in my heart, and I'm in a daze now."