Not since Harlan County, USA have I seen a movie that so made me want to buy the soundtrack where selling a soundtrack wasn't the point. Sopyonje, Kwon-Taek Im's labor of love, is a movie with a very specific cultural framing device to tell a recognizably archetypical story--or rather, three of them. We have the starving artist in the father, the parted siblings story in the children, and the musicians-standing-in-for-country symbolism all in one. However, the overarching narrative functions, as familiar as they may be, always take second place to the power of the music itself. Out of sheer surprise did I come to learn about, hear, appreciate, and end up really wanting to experience again the Korean folk style known as Pansori.
Im's best approach in here is his visual, as he seeks to engage the audience in Pansori without adhering strictly to musical conventions or get too expressionistic in the editing, sticking closely to the performative aspect of Pansori alone by letting the camera stand back and the music do its own work. That does not leave the movie lacking for visual elements, however, as this is one of those obnoxiously gorgeous pieces of celluloid where one wouldn't mind pasting a single frame as a piece of art unto itself on the wall. My favorite shot involves a wide angle long take as the full family, united, sing and dance along a curved road as they progressively get closer the camera, at which point they split to a more stagy left-and-right movement and maintain that space for the entirety of the song--which is all about how they are a family trying to figure out what road they are supposed to follow in the first place. The song ends; the scene cuts--and we never see which road they took next.
Sopyonje comes at a point in Korean history where modernization, like in many other countries, brought it's hopes and its fears. The characters speak carefully about democracy, not sure if they should trust it, while still trying to fight to be regarded as equals; the folk music of Pansori is in decline and in some cases even literally overshouted by other modern sounds, but the father's love for Pansori bypasses the passionate and becomes downright abusive. Nevertheless Im succeeds most at doing what he seeks to do in the long run--keep Pansori alive by introducing it to international audiences.
Sopyonje was not expected to be a huge moneymaker in Korea, only opening in one theatre. It hit some international festivals and ended up becoming world renowned. If anything, there's the true underdog story if the actual narrative in the movie seems too clichéd and sappy for you.
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The specifically Korean tradition that is reclaimed in Sopyonje is the type of folk-song known as pansori, described as a musical sublimation of South-West Korea's collective grief and suffering - in other words, a kind of blues. The film's three central characters are itinerant pansori singers in the 1950s, a time when many aspects of Korean culture came under siege from Japanese and western influences. The story unfolds through flashbacks. A man named Dong-ho is roaming the rural hinterlands, ostensibly to find rare herbal medicines for his employer back in Seoul, but actually in search of Song-hwa, the woman he grew up with. Orphans, they were both apprenticed to the pansori master Yu-bong who pressured them to sacrifice everything for the art. Dong-ho rebelled and ran away, to become the man he is now. Song-hwa stayed, lost her sight, and outlived Yu-bong. Rumor has it that she is still traveling and still singing pansori... The tale has one truly shocking twist, but the overall one is plaintive, elegiac and serenely beautiful. —Jay Lee
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
March 30, 2022 at 02:27 PM