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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang"

2017/07/01 | Permalink

In central Asia there resides an ethnic Korean minority large enough to support their own theater, the Koryo Theater. The high times of the Koryo Theater are long behind us- their main claim to fame is in grainy newsreel footage from the thirties. This footage, what little of it remains, celebrates traditional Korean music and performances fused with the musical and cultural style of Central Asia. This sound is utterly unique and, it would seem, particular to its place and time in history.

Director Kim So-young-I does not get into the history of where this cultural mix came from. We can, of course, easily guess that it goes back a long way. Note how these ethnic Koreans identify themselves as Koryo, the name of Korea dating back to the fourteenth century, rather than even Joseon. They're refugees from back before anyone had any concept of political motivation behind migrant movements. They left Korea because it sucked, and that was as much thought as they put into it.

No, what Kim So-young-I does is try to contextualize the Koryo Theater through the life stories of two of its most famous performers, Bang Tamara and Lee Ham-deok. Famous being a relative term, of course, since only people in central Asia had any idea who they were, and even then, how well do you know your local ethnic theater groups? They performed because they liked performing, and their lives of obscurity seem worthy neither of praise nor censure.

This is the nomad mindset- one that does not obsess over specific outcomes and endlessly try to rethink them, but one that just involves a shrug of the shoulders and going, eh, that's life. There's this weird air of indifference in all of the interviews. Everyone is extremely polite and they have very good memories. It never seems to occur to anyone that Kim So-young-I has some sort of actual point in mind through all these simple historical questions, nor do they care.

I could never figure out what Kim So-young-I's point was either, which oddly enough works to the advantage of "Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang". The people influenced by the classical performers of Koryo Theater are aware of the cultural distinctions, yet not defined by them. They understand cultural mixing as a daily part of unremarkable day-to-day life, and indeed, I have to be vague about this "Central Asia" stuff for good reason. Scene by scene it's surprisingly difficult to tell which combination of Russian, Korean, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz culture informs this person's life, and in what proportions.

This is because as time goes on, and the more we see of these people, the clearer it becomes that this is a continuous melding process that continues into the modern day. When we finally meet modern-day descendants of Bang Tamara and Lee Ham-deok, we can see how they are subtly Korean. Even if they don't look Korean or speak Korean or consider themselves Korean, the tiny subtle cultural markers we saw in the Koryo Theater yet persist.

Review by William Schwartz

"Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang" is directed by Kim So-young-I.

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