We passed this building on a number of occasions but didn’t actually stop or get to go inside. While suspecting a theatre, I didn’t know what the building was so, as I was really taken by the look of the exterior, I decided to investigate further. My investigations tell me that this is the Taedongmun Cinema House.
This cinema was one of the first buildings, together with houses, schools and hospitals, to be built in Pyongyang after the Korean War, as Kim Il-sung struggled to bring a level of normality to a city almost totally destroyed by the ravages of war.
On 29 December 1955, just prior to the cinema’s opening, Kim Il-sung dropped in for a final inspection tour and found everything in order but thought that the proposed name, the Central Cinema House, was rather awkward. He suggested that it be named after the near-by Taedongmun Gate – one of the original city gates, a seventh century reconstruction of which actually survived the Korean War. It was thus named.
The building is in the neoclassical style, with ornately topped octagonal Greek columns and a traditional Korean roof. The standout feature though, for me, is the trio group statue – comprising a soldier, a worker and a peasant – on the front of the building, added to ‘give it dignity’ and ‘explain the spirit of the times’.
The cinema, in addition to showing movies, became the venue for Near Year ceremonies for children in Pyongyang, in the presence of Kim Il-sung.
In 2008 Kim Jong-il decreed that the cinema be upgraded, under his supervision, to meet the demands of the 21st century.
As I have indicated in my review of the Korean Feature Film Studios, Kim Jong-il had a passion for movies and the North Korean film industry. I wrote:
‘Kim Jong-il ……. was particularly obsessed with movies and the industry flourished due to his direct and personal interest. His interest in films was not limited to the output of this studio. He had one of the largest private film collections in the world – reputedly 20,000 plus. It is said that his favourite film was ‘Gone with the Wind’ while his favourite actress was Elizabeth Taylor. Like Adolf Hitler, he had a particular liking for Disney movies and was a big fan of Daffy Duck. His otherwise general liking for James Bond movies was tarnished with the release of ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002 which depicted North Korea as a basket-case, evil state’.
While the front of the building was unchanged in the refurbishment, the rear wall was pushed back to double the size of the original building. The interior was totally gutted and remodelled with an abundant use of polished granite in its great entrance hall and in the corridors leading to two new audience halls (cinemas). Grand polished entrance halls with chandeliers and sterile corridors are typical of many of the city’s buildings built or remodelled under the guidance of Kim jong-il as is a book counter selling the works of the Leaders. Yes, there is a book counter in the cinema.
On the second and third floors there are large display areas with pictures ‘showing the reality of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ where ‘one can have a pleasant time according to one’s needs.’
Each of the two ‘audience rooms’ has 500 seats with state of the art lighting, equipment and seating. Kim Jong-il took the time to sit on a seat to ensure that angles, distance from the screen, etc were correct. He was particularly concerned that the positioning of the first two rows of seats might cause eye fatigue and neck strain which might lead to cervical vertebrae complaints and ordered that they be removed, as they were.
Today the cinema remains the main venue for domestic film premiers though it is also used for select screenings of foreign films where the audience is restricted to senior party members and government officials. It is also one of a few venues used during the biennial Pyongyang International Film Festival during which censored versions of suitable foreign films are accessible to a general audience.
This review is substantially based on the commentary in a short English language, North Korean produced, video on the history of the cinema. I suggest you watch it for an insight into North Korean documentary making and for the music!
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review– HERE (coming soon!)
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang reviews – HERE