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'Seopyeonje' - This 1993 film broke new ground as a cultural blockbuster

2006/03/24 Source

Adam Hartzell (internews)

Nothing is more frustrating in the world of Korean DVDdom than the fact that Im Kwon-taek's "Seopyeonje" still has yet to be made available on DVD with English subtitles. Yes, "Shiri" rewrote the playbook, but, as Kim Kyeong-hyeon notes, consider that "Seopyeonje" broke the previous box office record for a Korean film, a record held by Im himself w/ The "General's Son", through an initial release on ONE screen. None of this initial-release-on-450-screens crap like "Taegukgi" which practically guarantees if not outright imposes success. "Seopyeonje" wasn't expected to be a hit, but ended up having a six month run, becoming the first Korean film to garner a million tickets in Seoul and then roughly the same amount outside of it.

"Seopyeonje" was supposed to be a guaranteed money-loser, the serious film that Im's financiers permitted him after "The General's Son's" success. Yet following the "Searching for our culture" movement that, according to Cho Hae Joang, "arose in the 1970s on college campuses as students began to reconstruct and reinterpret traditional Korean cultural forms", "Seopyeonje" was the right film at the right time for just such a South Korean audience searching for something to reclaim about its culture. Call it "Seopyeonje" Serendipity, the result for Im was carte blanche to do whatever freakin' film he felt like in the future.

The film utilizes the musical form of p'ansori for metaphoric purposes, and it eventually caused a resurgence in the genre, even among the pop-rap/dancehall-obsessed youth fans of Roora and other KPop icons. Cho Hae-joang states that p'ansori developed in the Jeolla province of southwestern Korea, where Im himself grew up, and the title, "Seopyeonje" represents the western style of p'ansori, a form said to be more "feminine". (The other form, labeled the more "masculine", is tongp'yonje.) Some commentators compare p'ansori to opera, due to its lengthy story-like narrative and The Way It Is performed; whereas, others compare it to American Blues due to the pain p'ansori exudes, along with the genre originating from the lower classes.

The plot is deceptively simple. Based on a short story by Lee Chung-joon, Yu-bong (Kim Myung-gon) is a p'ansori master who travels with two adopted children, daughter Song-hwa (O Chang-hae), Yu-bong's p'ansori apprentice, and son Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-chul), a drummer, the only instrument that accompanies p'ansori -- unless you consider the singer's occasional fluttering of a folding fan for emotional emphasis an instrument.

The three troubadours travel throughout the countryside in efforts to perform and develop their artistry while trying to remain true to Yu-bong's interpretation of what qualifies as real p'ansori. (Such traveling about brings Kyung Hyun Kim to label this film a "Road Movie". However, rather than escaping from home as in American road movies, theses characters are in search of a home to relocate their families, their past, and their masculinity.)

Spanning from the 1940's through the 1970's, we slowly see how the intrusion/appropriation of Japanese and American cultural traditions limit the opportunities for p'ansori to be performed, and thus, further developed. Hence, p'ansori basically represents the struggle to maintain an essential "Koreanness" within the rushing modernity. Many Koreans commented on how the film represented the purest portrayal of Han they had yet to see on screen. Han, as I repeat myself from my Mudang review that also addresses it, is a concept ever elusive to non-Korean viewers. To quote Chungmoo Choi, Han basically entails "the sentiment that one develops when one cannot or is not allowed to express feelings of oppression, alienation, or exploitation because one is trapped in an unequal power relationship".

Aesthetically, the film represents Im and his personal Christopher Doyle, cinematographer Jeong Il-seong, at the top of their game. Most striking is the five minute static take of the three joyously performing "Arirang" as they meander through the gorgeous countryside. (So powerful is this rendition, that I recall attempts at chanting this with two friends who saw the film with me when moving out of my place in Oakland, chanting in an effort to numb our own pain from the inconvenience of moving obnoxiously large pieces of furniture into the poorly-designed-for-moving, winding, staircase of a San Francisco Victorian.)

Along with presenting the loss to Korean culture through the struggle to maintain a space for p'ansori, Im continues his trope of utilizing a woman character as metaphor for the torturous history of South Korea. One of the most discussed Korean films in English -- demonstrated by my awkward peppering of citations throughout this review -- Im's metaphoric use of Song-hwa's character is perhaps one of the most debated aspects of the film. To discuss these plot elements further would result in major spoilers.

But let me say that after reading Choi's interpretation of this plot element found in the book "Im Kwon-taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema", I have a hard time not seeing what she sees in regards to these scenes. Although, Julian Stringer and Cho, in the same volume, Kyung Hyun Kim, in his book "The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema", and Im himself both argue alternative interpretations. Personally, I interpret this moment in the film as an example of the horrific results when pursuing art solely on one's own terms to the point of stripping others of their agency.

Seopyeonje was clearly a cultural phenomenon. Han Ju Kwak states it generated the first soundtrack of a South Korean film -- I myself was introduced to this film first through the soundtrack owned by a Korean-American friend in college -- and the first film book full of various minutiae about the film that extended the discussion into everyday public life. The Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo eventually nominated Im as "Man of the Year". Although "Seopyeonje" was able to cross over generational, class, and gender barriers to be enjoyed by millions, the film still had its detractors. Most interesting are those who challenged the "Koreanness" exhibited in the film. As one of Cho's overseas Korean students exclaimed regarding the film's aesthetics, "When did Korea become so French?"

As evidenced by the lively, mostly positive, debate it caused, it is a testament to perseverance that Im, a man disadvantaged by his family's Leftist leanings from the stigmatized Jeolla Province, a man who never even finished middle school and took up film solely as a job that would allow him to eat, and a man who was not known for directing films of artistic quality before 1980, ended up creating what is perhaps the definitive work of Korean cinema. Add to this the fact that film was a medium Koreans, especially Korean youth, had all but given up on, and that the film carried no big name actors. Korean audiences found exactly what they were searching for in "Seopyeonje", an opportunity to reclaim and rejuvenate Korean culture.

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