Before K-Pop…

 “The film that drew an audience of over a million and became a national phenomenon…” (Korean Film Archive.)

Before K-Pop, there was Pansori (p’ansori). Sopyonje (Seo’pyeonje 서편제), filmed in 1993 depicts Pansori (Traditional Korean Opera) as a form of cultural revivalism in a time were South Koreans had gone through post-colonialism, the Korean War, government corruption, and Westernization. Im Kwon-Taek, director of the film, uses the three main characters Songhwa (Left of image), Yubong (Middle), and Dongho (Right of image) to transcend the value of tradition, suffering, and cultural revivalism to the audience of South Korea in the 1990s. Basically, in the film Yubong, played by Myung-gon Kim, takes his adopted daughter Songhwa (Jung-hae Oh), and stepson Yubong (Kyu-chul Kim) to learn the traditional art of pansori. Dongho and Songhwa, even though they are not related, also build a brotherly and sisterly bond that is important to the film. This film takes the audience through the characters lives for about three decades (1930s-1960s) and embarks upon a journey of these three performers who greatly suffer under the social and cultural changes of South Korea.

The picture above is ironic because it is the only scene in the film that gives one relief to the constant suffering that one sees in the lives of the artists, especially Dongho and Songhwa, but let us start with the film’s story. The story of Dongho, Songhwa, and Yubong begins with Donghos’ who reveals the story through his flashbacks. He is seen going around various towns looking for Songhwa since the day he left her and his step father Yubong. At the same time we learn he is married with and has a family and that he too, by meeting with various people from his past, learns that Songhwa had continuously gone through a life of misery after Dongho left.

Since they were children, Yubong, who is a professional pansori performer, teaches them the art of pansori, Dongho (drums) and Songhwa (vocals). As the years pass, they face great trials as pansori decreases in popularity throughout South Korea. Yubong is quite the stubborn man who refuses to fall into the the countries growing influences of Western culture. He forces Dongho and Songhwa to work harder, even though they are constantly homeless and starving because they have very few people asking them to perform. Most of the time they are on their feet, walking from countryside to small towns looking for any wealthy aristocrats to have them perform. Otherwise, they reside in the countryside practicing the art of pansori. After years of frustration, Dongho leaves and Songhwa stays with her father because she not only pities him, but also finds that pansori is her only form of living.

Through her vocal growth, Songhwa (in the above image with Yubong) is close to mastering pansori, but not fully after falling into a realm of silence since Dongho, her brother, left. Yubong, her adopted father, decides that for the sake of pansori, would secretly blind her by using a special tea. Songhwa, now blind, starts to awaken her passion to sing, since it’s the only thing she can do at that point. The important thing to note is her voice which is close to the point of mastering. Here you can get a sense of her situation from 1:17:10s to 1:20:00s. Years later after training and Yubong gets old, the film enters the climactic part where Songhwa reveals to her father that she knew all along that she had been purposely blinded. Yubong tells her to get mad at him for her suffering and that she should go beyond her grief so that she can master the pureness of pansori’s.

“Instead of being buried in the han clenched inside of you, from now on sing the sori that transcends han.” – (서편제 Sopyonje)

This quote here is the moral of the film, han (grief/suffering) which can only be passed through sori (song) or pansori which Im Kwon-Taek uses as a metaphor for tradition. This is an important message to the South Koreans in 1993 when the film was released. South Koreans at the time disliked domestic films because they were seen as “boring, poorly made, and melodramatic.” (1) South Korean’s movie industry suffered a lot throughout the 1970’s and 80’s because moviegoers preferred foreign (Western) movies. The bigger problem was that during the 70s and 80s, any form of media mocked the Korean culture (post-colonialism, the Korean War, and government corruption), giving a sense of self-denigration for the country’s culture (1), thus Koreans preferring foreign films. Reviews and articles referencing Sopyonje’s message to the audience called for the revival of South Korean culture and a rise of identity, touched by the “depiction of the culture that was seen as almost non-existent.” (1)

In a nut shell, South Korea, since 1948, has gone through many things. After the post-colonization of Japanese Imperialism from World War II, South Korea was taken by several dictators who further caused the wounds of the people. There were constant clashes between the South Koreans and the government for their corrupted methods of controlling the South Koreans. One of the closer and more painful events after the DMZ-Korean War was during the Fifth Republic 1979-1987, under prime minister Choi Kyu-hah, who was responsible for the Gwangju massacre which had “Immediate estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from a few dozen to 2000, with a later full investigation by the civilian government finding nearly 200 deaths and 850 injured.” The massacre was a tremendous hit to the South Koreans in 1987. Im Kwon-Taek’s narrative to the South Korean audience  in in Sopyonje (1993) ultimately communicates that to grow as a society after such suffering, the South Koreans must overcome their han instead of resenting their painful past, which transcends through sori, or tradition. Therefore, South Koreans should harness their ‘han’ as a fuel to progress as a refined and traditionally kept South Korea instead of hiding under the western influences.

Preservation of Korean Culture

Since October 2013, it was 20 years ago when Im Kwon-Taek’s movie “Sopyeonje (1993)” hit theaters and renewed public interest in “pansori.” However, it has become clear over the years through the representation of K-pop, traditional music continues to be under-appreciated at home (South Korea). If Korean schools spent more time on gugak and traditional dance, people may learn to love them. But…schools have continued to undermine the importance of traditional music. Music curriculums are designed in a way to promote and train with Western music. Under the law, about 30 percent of music textbooks are supposed to be dedicated to introducing Korean traditional music. However, music is not just about theory. How can students learn pansori when teachers themselves don’t know how to play Korean instruments or sing a pansori tune. Because of the long training hours and dim prospect of a decent living, fewer and fewer people go into the profession.

After watching the film and understanding the South Korean history, I feel as though it is important to let others know about the importance of the South Korean struggle, not because I am obsessed with Korean pop culture (which I am not by the  way), but because when you explore this movie and others similar to it, there is so much hurt in their past and to be able to be as strong as they are as a country now, is truly admirable to my eyes. Compared to other countries who have gone through communistic/dictatorship and war, South Korea has prevailed and has become one of the most talked about countries to due its music, drama series, and movies. Everyone loves South Korean music or culture in one way or another, and you can’t deny it! Think about Gangnam Style by Psy, tell me you didn’t like it!? Also, if you read this article about the song, you would be shocked! Gangnam Style is not a song that promotes the evolution of modern South Korea, but humorously mocks South Korea’s Seoul capital wealthy region of Gangnam. The article similarly mentions Im Kwon-Teak’s message in 1993, “We must not only remember our heritage, but embrace it as well.”

So, next time you watch a Korean drama, movie, or even a song/music video, research of any historical context or social movements, trust me, they mention it a lot!

Check out Songhwa’s final scene as she finally mastered pansori, it is truly a heartfelt scene between her and Dongho’s reunion:

(1) Cho, Hae-jeong. 2002. “Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning,” inIm Kwon-taek: the Making of Korean National Cinema, eds. David James and Kyung Hyun Kim, 134-156*

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