Sopyonje

Once in a long while, a movie or drama comes along and leaves you hungry for more. Hungry not just for the story itself (or the characters), but for the history and events behind the story.

It was that way when I finished Eyes of Dawn; I parked myself in front of the computer for weeks on end trying to find out more about Korean history during World War II. It was the same when I finished Sopyonje (1993). I immediately went online to find everything I could about Korea’s pansori culture.

A family of pansori singers (a father and his two adopted children) moves from village to village plying their music and earning very little from it. The father, Yu-bong (Kim Myeong-gon), clings obstinately to his belief that he can make a living from pansori. The reality, of course, is that they are barely surviving.

Determined to turn Song-hwa (Oh Jeong-hae) and Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-cheol) into perfect pansori musicians, he trains them with a punishing and even cruel rigor. Dong-ho rebels and runs away, leaving his sister with their father; he will return years later to look for them. Events in the movie are seen in retrospect through his eyes.

The first Korean movie to attract more than a million movie-goers in Seoul, Sopyonje received much acclaim upon its release, sweeping award after award for best film, director, actor and actress. It was also invited to the Cannes and Venice film festivals.

But this is not a movie for everyone.

For the first 45 minutes or so, nothing much happens and viewers (particularly people like me who are unfamiliar with pansori or the historical context of the movie) may find the going slow. To the unschooled ear, the pansori may also sound jarring, even grating, like someone singing while getting strangled. At times the singing feels more like shouting.

Then something magical happens about midway through the movie.

In a five-minute scene that left me in tears because of its utter beauty, the family breaks into song as they are walking on a deserted rural path. With nothing but nature around them, they dance and sing with complete abandon. Their performance is so joyous, so beautiful, so exhilarating, I had never seen anything like it in a movie. For that five minutes, their poverty and wandering cease to matter. Pansori is their life and they will give it their all.

From that moment on, my first discomfiting impressions of pansori dissolved and I thought, “I can listen to this ALL DAY.”

This is a movie where less is truly more. In the movie’s most heartrending moment when Dong-ho finally finds his sister, there is no sign of recognition, no word of acknowledgement, no hug. All of her emotions are in her song, and all of his in his fingers as he beats the drum in accompaniment. Only at the end of the song do their tears fall.

In parts harsh and tender, sorrowful and uplifting, Sopyonje made me appreciate (and ache for) another aspect of Korea’s past. The pansori echoed in my head for days, an other-worldly music now familiar and loved.

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