Sunday, August 7, 2016

Performances of "Tradition" for Tourists : Jeongdong Theatre's "Youll"

For many years I've wanted to more deeply examine the performances that are marketed to tourists in Korea. A friend of mine, Choi Haeree, invited me to one of them and I decided that this would be the perfect time to write a paper on some of the issues with appropriation and commodification of tradition that I've seen in such shows. My chief issue with performances for tourists is how they adjust tradition to a point where what they are showing lacks many of the beautiful aspects of actual tradition, or worse, just uses a facade of tradition while offering nothing of substance.

Haeree and I watched a show at Haeundae Grand Hotel in Busan called "The Queen's Banquet." There were many issues, but... there were some good points to the show as well. The full price is 30,000 won, but it seems there are a lot of ways to get discounts, if you're in Busan anyway, you might like it. I wouldn't tell someone "never see that" as there are redeeming features (I particularly was happy that I could take photos during the show!). 
For the second show of three that I am watching specifically  for the purposes of writing this paper, I went to Jeongdong Theatre (formerly written Chungdong but I noticed they've changed the spelling to RR Romanization). Again, I was able to get a ticket for free. Thanks be! Because it was one of the worst performances I've ever seen. Seriously, it was horrible. If you said the show in Busan was like an enthusiastic student performance where they missed some of the subtle aesthetics and got too excited and jumped too much, well, this show in Seoul would be the show done by some pretentious art school students who understand nothing, think they understand everything, have no respect for anyone (including the audience) and are bored out of their minds, or fully know they're doing something stupid and their desire to be somewhere else shows. 

So, let me see if I can explain why this show (ticket prices of 30-60,000 won) was so bad. 
First: The show included all the cliches. If a woman is evil, she sexually tempts, exposes too much of her body (hello, in a "traditional" show you've got women with skirts slit straight to their crotch?), or she wears black lipstick. If a woman is good, she's bashful about physical contact, or she flits around on her toes with a white feather/wand. The story was stupid and cliche over all. It could be summarized as: evil kills good king, hero emerges through difficulty, hero and heroine prepare for battle with evil, they defeat evil, they get married. The entire play was mostly non-verbal, except for sung narration. The over-acting to make sure you'd understand the un-narrated bits was... extreme.

Second: There were essentially three traditional elements at play. A) pansori B) pungmul drumming C) hanbok costumes. But the pansori singers are either incompetent, or more likely, the director told them to make it less of a pansori type singing and more of an operatic type singing. The distinctive properties of pansori were almost absent. Songs were used as narration to move the story (in pansori, narration is narration-- it's spoken-- and songs are when the action slows down to real-time speed instead of compressed jumps), and at almost every instance the pansori was accompanied by a cacophony (yes, loud, loud, loud) of recorded music from offstage including synthesizers, and maybe some cymbal, high hat, a little drum, or whatever from the Western drumset drummer who was in the pit to the front and side of the stage. So the actual beauty of pansori (accompanied by a single drummer on a barrel drum, very subtle) was never on display.

The pungmul drummers had -at most- forty-five seconds of stage time without other off-stage or front stage Western drumset man music accompanying them. Even though the drummers were on stage about five times, you never really got a sense of Korean rhythms or the actual sound of just drumming (even though Korean traditional drumming tends to be what foreigners enjoy the most, show after show).  And finally the hanbok were all fancied up and made sexier, so the performers could look slim and beautiful-- not one traditional hanbok was ever on stage, except perhaps some of what the peasants were wearing, but even those were not white minbok, even if they were minbok-esque. 

I am not saying the show has to be traditional, or that it needs to be fully authentic, but if your marketing and promotional literature talks about how you showcase the heritage of pansori and talk up how it's also UNESCO listed, then at least you can actually have some real pansori on stage. There were a lot of foreigners in the audience, and they thought they were seeing tradition-- they wanted to see tradition, that's why they bought the ticket. To show that that horrible show at best leaves the beauty of Korean tradition tarnished in their eyes. They probably go home saying "that didn't seem very different than xxxx from my culture." There was no dance motion from tradition, and the martial arts scenes were at best an orientalist fantasy of all Asian martial arts rolled into one, nothing specific to Korea, in fact, since the hero and heroine use long staffs, which are not much used in Korean martial arts, but are used abundantly in Chinese arts, probably any Chinese viewer would have thought it was stage-Kung Fu, not anything Korean. 

Third: The entire show was a mish-mash of orientalism and self-exotification where the directors and producers were clearly aiming for a non-Korean (Western) eye, without caring one whit about accurate or otherwise presentations of Korean traditions or culture. The entire thing felt icky, like I needed a shower afterwards. And of course it also represented a giant missed opportunity. The show is twice a day, six days a week. It's widely promoted and backed by the government. All those people who could have learned something didn't. For example at the end the heroine is in a slim and body hugging white gown (with hanbok elements), and has a white veil-like hair piece. So you can understand they're getting married. Never mind that in Korea white is the color of death and funerals, and that traditional wedding robes are gorgeous, splendid things that don't use some lame filmy white lace, but rather an even more awesome hair piece like crown with a trailing embroidered silk strip down the back of the head. Of course a one word title on the side (they had English on one side, Japanese and Chinese on the other on screens) could have declared "wedding celebration" just to make it all clear for the audience, if they really thought people needed it.

They were very proud of their hyper-modern visual techniques-- and I admit a couple times they were cool-- but most of the time they were just distracting and more light on the stage and less eyestrain from trying to see through weird layers of projected moving images would have been nicer. 

I am appalled that this is what is being offered to tourists, that every travel agency is recommending this show (one reason is that most shows are one-off and agencies like long runs that are easy to predict), and that in fact Jeongdong Theatre has slipped so much (I enjoyed some of their cheesy tourist stuff in the past, admittedly when I knew less about traditional performance, but it was much more traditional than this). Tourists who come for a once in a lifetime visit to Korea should be shown the best of Korea, not some horrible mix of bad singing, ballet-esque motion, and historionics. 

I just hope that the final show of the three is less odious to sit through. 


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