Written by Cole Clouse
Preface: Pansori is a musical storytelling style of Korea originating in the Joseon Dynasty. Consisting of only a singer and a drummer, pansori is a very guttural, deep, bellowing style of music. It is something that needs to be seen and heard in person to be truly appreciated.
Seopyeonje is not an easy film. The third film by this director that I have seen (The Taebaek Mountains and Chunhyang being the first and second, respectively), Im Kwon-taek has a tendency to show the true nature of his subjects. A lower-class, wandering musical trio travels from city to city. A stubborn, rigid father. A blind, reserved daughter. A headstrong, rebellious son. A dying, unappreciated music. This is the foursome that makes up our story.
The story itself is, on the surface, very basic. A widower twice over pushes his love for pansori onto his two children. The daughter accepts her lot in life, acquiescing to her father’s demands. The son follows the same path until eventually it becomes too much, and he strives to break out and forge his own path in life.
Through his interaction with his children, it is obvious the father puts far more love into pansori than his family. And herein lies the crossroads that Korea is still standing at to this day. If today’s younger generation does not care for their past and culture, how does one respond? It is a universal feeling that we will all go through as we age in life. Be it small social mores to larger cultural practices, what is the proper course of action we as societies should take? Pushing too hard can lead to alienation (the son) or placidity (the daughter). The history exists, but at what cost to the youth? And can pansori even exist without the passion needed to perform it? The father, hypocritical as it may be, scolds his daughter. “How can you not sound mournful in your singing when you have had the life I have given you?”
It is not only the characters and screenplay that show a feeling of want. Jeolla residents will notice filming locations of Boseong and Naju just to name a few. The camera work is fantastic. Interspersed throughout the movie are longing shots of the trio hiking long distances to the next town, practicing their songs, singing to potential audiences along the way. The Korean equivalent to minstrels of years past. The movie takes place in a time when Korea was going through a sudden upheaval in their economy, and they were making massive changes to the country. But the movie doesn’t focus much at all on this urbanization, and instead puts more emphasis on the countryside. More resistance to the changing times?
All in all, Seopyeonje is a movie full of sorrow. It longs for the past. It knows the future is inevitable but is unsure of how to react accordingly. The familial drama is kept focused and tight. The outsiders to the family are inconsequential. There are no side stories, sub-plots. The audience is given exactly what they need to understand the bigger picture and no more. It never gives an indictment on the changing times like other films of its kind might. It gives no answers, but instead, it points the viewer inward and poses far more questions than we started with.
Note: This video can be seen it its entirety with English subtitles on the YouTube page, KoreanFilmArchive.