Thursday, February 7, 2013

Korean Movies: Seopyeonje

I'm working on my article again. That means more reading, and occasionally going back to my article to capture a fleeting thought before it escapes. I was reading a not-so-exciting article and all of a sudden the final track on the soundtrack for the movie 서편제 (NGR: Seopyeonje but you'd better look for "Sopyonje") came up on the itunes rotation. The music is so profoundly moving (especially combined with my memory of the movie), I almost cried.



Here's a trailer. It's an old movie (1992) so don't expect nice English subtitles on the trailer, but the movie is available from netflix and for purchase with subtitles. And it's one of the best movies I've ever seen.

The movie contains two main themes:
~ The struggle of tradition to survive in a modernized/modernizing world
~ The struggle of one young woman to achieve the complexity in performance ability required by her adopted father

The movie, by Im Gwontaek (Im Kwon-taek), one of the best Korean directors, is centered on the art of pansori, a Korean sung epic-story where a single performer sings all the roles (lyrics include "Shimcheong's father answered..." "The old woman said" rather than requiring the performer to actually use different voices for different characters). Pansori epics are rarely performed full length, as they are six to eight hours long, but the highlights are sung often (like famous arias from Western opera). Once in Seoul I saw a full-length performances of pansori. The audience bought tickets for two performances, one week apart (of the first half and the second half-- and it was not required that one buy both tickets).

I saw that performance many years before I began my focused study of Korean culture, and I remember few details. I had to take the bus from Daegu to Seoul for the two halves of the show, which was performed in a lighted hall (so the performer could see and feel the audience), and many people would go "take a break" (smoke, pee, talk with friends on their cell phone) when the mood struck them during the show. What really struck me was the emotion that I felt while listening. At that time my Korean was considerably less fluent than it is today, but even today I find pansori difficult to understand when it is performed-- usually I understand the narration (this narration is part of the performance and the words are fixed), when the singer explains what has happened between two songs, but (like most Koreans), I cannot follow word-by-word except in the case of a few very famous excerpts that I have heard over and over again (many of these are also in my recorded music collection--in my own defense my collection also includes two full-length recordings). But you do not need fluent Korean, or much Korean at all, to feel the emotions and perceive the beauty in pansori.

Although (historically) there were more epics, only five have survived until the present day. Three are very well known, Chunhyang-ga, Shimcheong-ga, and Heungbo-ga. In this case 'ga' means vocal music or song, for example the same Chinese character 'ga' is present in the genre names gagok and gasa, two other types of Korean vocal music. Two pansori epics are less well known, these are Jeokbyeok-ga and Sugung-ga. 

There are many better sources for information about pansori, but the movie Seopyeonje truly communicates the beauty of the vocal genre in a way that the movie Chunhyang -- a movie that retells the Chuhyang story through alternating live-action and concert-pansori performance-- does not. Chunhyang is a great movie, and I recommend it, too. But Seopyeonje is beautiful, the singing (by Ahn Suk-seon) is fantastic, and in the classroom it sparks discussion of the performing arts, changes in Korean society, Korean aesthetic ideals, and connects well to discussions about protecting the heritage.

I leave you with this short documentary on pansori. Certainly the English subtitles could have been more professionally rendered, yet in less than twelve minutes it will give you a lot of background information about the genre.

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