Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning
Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning
No one involved in making Sopyonje (Stip'v njc) imagined that it would become the most popular domestic movie in South Korean history, quickly topping the box-office success of the same director's tamed The General's Son (Clsan un flu adail ). At the time of its release in April 1993, newspapers were reporting that the nation's filmmakers were principally aiming for prizes in foreign art film festivals rather than popularity at home, yet Sopyonje won rave reviews and the adulation of viewers all over the country. By October, the number of domestic viewers exceeded one million, and the film was being screened for foreign audiences at art theaters and on college campuses iii many parts of the United States and Europe.
Briefly, Sopyonje focuses on a makeshift family over the course of three decades, from the 1930s through the 1960s: a father, his adopted daughter, and his stepson. The family ekes out a living performing p'ansori at parties and at the homes of rich aristocrats.' Performers have traditionally been relegated to the lowest class in South Korea, and the family is scorned, ignored, arid often humiliated. Once the country falls under the domination of American culture, the demand for p'altsori falls dramatically, and the family teeters on the verge of starvation. "l'he father, however, clings to his art and insists on passing it on to his children. He trains them in p'niasori, the daughter as a vocalist and the son as a drummer. But the son, fed up with being poor and unable to fathom the father's motives, runs away from home. The movie tolloyS his search, years later, for his sister, and it culminates in their reunion. Shot against a stunning rural backdrop, ssclling with the heartbreaking strains of an original score that was deliberately reminiscent of-but not quite the same as-traditional South Korean music, and showcasing snatches of p'ansori and traditional folk songs, the movie vvas widely extolled as a major cultural achievement: The soundtrack album was also a great hit. Featuring the film's score, composed by Kim Su-ch'dl, as well as excerpts from the movie's soundtrack, the album gives listeners a sampling of traditional Korean music. Both the movie and the album were widely credited with reviving public interest in p'a n.trri.
The movie also generated scores of articles in South Korean news-papers and magazines. In addition to reviews, the South Krrrean press published updates on the movie's popularity and the public reaction, as well as interviews with the director, producer, principal actors, and the man who wrote the short story on which the movie is based. Four oldie nation's major dailies weighed in with editorials, and most newspapers carried columns commenting on the social and cultural significance of the Sopyontje phenomenon.
Reprints of many of these articles, as well as a chronological list of theta, can be found in "Sopvonjc?" Mimic Book, a lavishly illustrated resource and fact book published in October 1993, just seven months after the movie's release.-' Apparently aimed at tans hungry ti)r detailed and up close information about the movie, it includes a long account of the film's production, beginning with Im Kwon-Tack's recollection that when he first read the story he knew it would be perfect for a movie. The ".Sopvonjc" Alopic Book, based on journals kept by the production crew as well as individuals' reminiscences, records enough details about locations, conversations among the cast and crew, and other insider goings-on to satisfy even the most ardent fan. It also includes the full screenplay, interviews with members of the cast and crew, a guide to the locations where the film was shot, and reprints of editorials, columns, reviews, and articles. Moreover, it features blurbs from too fans about what Sopyonje meant to them, excerpts from college newspapers and Internet chat groups, and a detailed chronology of the director's life and career, including pictures of his family.
Edited by the director himself, the hook is unique in South Korean publishing history: the first to focus so lovingly and in such detail on a single movie. (Books containing the scripts of fabulously popular television dramas, as well as some behind-the-scenes details, have also been published, however.) The range of references gathered in the "Sopyonje" Movie Book reflects the extensive public reaction to the film. On college campuses, for example, it provoked much discussion about South Korean culture and identity-one reason why a full section of the book is devoted to the reactions of the younger generation. It was seen as a positive sign that college students were so moved by the depiction of traditional South Korean culture. The female lead, 0 Chong-hae-an accomplished p'ansori singer making her acting debut-toured college campuses and sang the traditional South Korean lyrics while dressed either in blue jeans or a miniskirt. The idea, she often said, was to show young people that tradition need not be stuffy and boring. But what is the significance of this immensely popular movie? How should we interpret the remarkable reaction to it?
Most writers on the subject regard the movie and the ensuing public response as a trumpet call heralding the revival of South Korean culture. In articles such as "Sopyonje Is Ruining Korean Movies,"i they argued that the film's success in exploiting traditional culture gave the illusion that the South Korean movie industry was in revival, when in fact overall it was drawing its last breath in the midst of modern history's "cultural globalization," one with all the markings of a primarily Western-based culture. Thus the sensation raised by Sopyonje at this point in time is a deeply significant event in South Korea's cultural history. What does the emergence of such a movie in a society with little cultural capital signify? What meaning can he extracted from it? Does it contain the possibility of moving beyond cultural colonialism?
By focusing on the popularity of this domestic movie, I'd like to discuss postcolonialism in South Korean society generally, or, to put it differently, the self generative potentiality of South Korean culture. Whether South Koreans are ready to throw off the colonialist mentality or sadaejui4 and how such endeavors can be carried out are the issues I seek to explore here.
The popularity of Sopyonje must be understood within the context of the decline of the South Korean movie industry in the 1970S and '8os. It appeared at a time when many South Koreans, young people in particular, had become thoroughly disappointed with domestic films. South Korean movies were regarded as boring, poorly made, and melodramatic to the point of becoming maudlin. Foreign films dominated the market.
South Korean movies have not always been out of favor with their home-grown audiences. During the 1960s, when directors such as Shin Sang-ok were active, viewers flocked to sec domestic films. Throughout the 196os, South Korean movies achieved great popularity by expressing the trials and tribulations of living life in the midst of rapid social change. But as television began to establish itself as a powerful amusement medium, South Korean movies started to decline. Television dramas reflecting South Korean society came straight into people's living rooms. So did comedies, sports, and other entertainment programs. In addition, many who had once produced movies moved over to television. The South Korean movie industry continued to atrophy even in the climate of rapid economic growth, and most moviegoers began to prefer foreign movies, even as they watched South Korean television dramas at home. (Actually, South Korean audiences are disappointed by more than just the domestic movie industry. Whether attending a play, a concert, or a dance performance, one frequently feels that one has somehow been mocked. South Koreans have been starved for too long of quality cultural works of their own, and many are now close to giving up.)
Sopyonje has great meaning precisely because it emerged in the midst of this culturally barren landscape. Made with tenacious craftsmanship
and skill acquired over many years, this movie successfully bridges the gap the movie industry had created between itself and viewers. It shows us the possibility of the rebirth of the movie medium. Sopyonje may be the beginning of a revival of the culture industry. On the other hand, as it spurs emotional nationalism, it may simply be a reflection of an era that accelerates colonialist modernization. Final assessments of Sopyonje will not be determined by its producers but by audiences, movie reviewers, and cultural critics.
"Searching For Our Culture"
It is widely accepted that Sopyonje became a hit because its principal theme is "searching for our culture." 1 Once an industrialized economy has advanced to a certain level, people begin to think about the "self" that they have lived without. This movie was released at precisely such a point in South Korea's history. From the exclamation that "Ah, our culture is good indeed! "e to the theoretical statement that "Sopyonje was woven by a self-inquiring consciousness that has begun gradually to surge forth,' gratitude was fervently expressed that a "minjok movie"-one that "washes away our sweet sorrows with images filled with toenjatng-scented ocher earth"-had been made.
Such comments reveal that "searching for our culture" is a great national desire. One passage in particular from the movie resonated in the hearts of many people: "Instead of being buried in the ban clenched inside you, from now on sing the sori that transcends ban." In these lines can be read the desire to find tradition and, within changed circumstances, revive it. In an attempt to examine further the discourse on collective sentiments, I asked college students who were enrolled in my course on cultural theory to write short essays on the film Sopyonje and the attendant phenomenon. The words of these students well illustrate the desire to "reinvent" tradition. They also provide other interesting viewpoints:
1) First, Sopyonje presented a fresh view of p'ansori, which was strange and unfamiliar to us even though it is part of our culture. I had
SOPTONJE: CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL MEANING
no idea that p'ansori was so emotional. If what we need to reestablish ourselves within the unilateral importation of Western culture and fashion is to make a new culture with tradition as its foundation, then this movie shows us the tradition that we need to find.
Another important point is that this movie transcended generations and touched everyone. Seeing middle-aged adults in their forties and fifties standing in line at theaters to watch this movie, one realizes that good movies are not the exclusive property of youth. That the movie transcended generations and touched everyone shows that p'ansori is the root that has been handed down through our everyday lives. Only through this movie did I realize this truth, and now the work of finding and revealing our roots in more areas must be started. (Class of 1988,9 Knn-sik)
a) It was the first South Korean movie I had seen in quite a long time, and an excitement that I had not felt in quite a long time. During the singing scenes, I could sense my shoulders suddenly beginning to dance up and down. It felt like my body was being carried away on the rhythms of "sori."
The extremely simple story line, the succession of plain scenes with no plot twists, the immature acting of new faces with no name value, what is it about the movie that despite all this gave me such excitement?
First, above all else, it was sori. Sari is not simply traditional South Korean music. There is definitely more to it than music. Our sensibility, the flow of emotions that linger in our collective heart, this dwells inside sori. It wasn't simply due to excitement that my shoulders danced as if of their own volition. It was because I felt that my mind was one with that of the characters on the screen, because the rhythms were the flow of my own mind, that it was possible. Of course there is a bit here of the "All of our culture is beautiful!" ideology as expressed by Yu-bong (the father character). The important thing is that the sentiment within sari is fully communicated to the audience and we can look at the self that we have lost.
Second, the background of the movie is another attraction. The shots in this movie are thoroughly Korean. They contain forms with simple, classic, and gentle lines. The rural landscape through which
the sari family passes in its travels is the site of our lost lives and reveals the gentle emotions carried within that environment. When I see these scenes I feel great tranquility and ease. I feel the comfort of a baby who is finally resting on a bed after laboriously taking some faltering steps.
Ultimately this movie's excitement comes from its Koreanness. Its greatest attraction is that it calls up a nostalgia for "our culture" which cannot be found in a contemporary hectic lifestyle, a dull mass culture, or in a present thick with the marks of nation-less culture. If a new awareness of traditional culture and its successive revival is a repercussion of this movie, nothing could be more fortunate. But the more important thing is gaining the self-confidence to find the traces of my historical self right here where I stand. Sopyonje made me realize how greatly excited I could be by our own culture, and deeply impressed upon me that I cannot be anything other than a "Korean," and that the culture we must develop from now on cannot be cut off from tradition. (Class of 1990, Il-kwon.)
The meaning of "searching for our culture" is well expressed in these two essays. In a word, this is similar to a feeling of relief First, the relief that comes from confirming that despite the invasion of foreign culture, one's own culture continues on; second, the relief that something ("Koreanness") can unite everyone across the chasms of generation, class, and other divisive factors. This seems connected to the relief that "we as an entity continue to exist." Put differently, "we exist" is a confirmation of self. There is great comfort in knowing that "roots" and a "we" that together can feel the same emotions still exist.
But this discovery of tradition centered on Sopyonje. Where is the commentary surrounding the "search for the self" headed now? There is, of course, the positive aspect of overcoming self-denigration. But where are South Koreans trying to go? An ethnocentric, sentimental nationalism that emphasizes a return to tradition can be dangerous. Essentialist traditionalism can easily veer off into fascism. For some responses to the questions raised here, let's turn to an essay by cultural critic Yi Se-ryong, titled "The Humanist Director Im Kwon-Taek, Who Found South Korean Identity in Sopyonje":
Im says that the much-discussed screening at the Cannes International Film Festival and the prize are secondary matters. Of first importance is that our South Korean audience feels the taste and style of p'ansori. Im describes this as his ambition, but he didn't have this ambition when he was making Sopyonje. "When I started I had the small ambition that it would be nice if a few people could be awakened to our culture. But when I finished, the reaction of the audience was so good that I developed this large ambition," said Im in his famously awkward speech. On the day of Sopyonje's preview screening, the reaction of the audience was stunning. Reviewers famous for being stingy with their praise, reporters known for their pickiness, reticent junior directors, as one they were wiping away tears or their eyes were reddening in a rare spectacle...
just what is the "sori" that to the end wasn't lost throughout the wanderings of the sori family-Yu-bong, his adopted daughter Song-hwa, and his stepson Tong-ho-who made a living selling their musical talents? As lm explains it, p'ansori is the "rapturous sound that expresses our suffering and helps us to endure." So he focused Sopyonje on "how the han of those who wander in the midst of the beautiful landscape of southwestern South Korea seeps into p'ansori and is transformed into salvation and release." Even during liberation, when such songs as "Bessame Mucho" began to gain popularity and sori musicians barely eked out a living by playing in Western-style bands, the main character obstinately insists on sori. He clings to this sori that doesn't provide a living not only because it is our sound, but because when one sings good sori one forgets hunger, and isn't envious of riches and splendor. But time passes, and an old, weakened Yu-bong hopes that his daughter Song-hwa will reach the stage of "tugilm."10 The voice of Song-hwa, who is talented in sori and more than hardworking, is a fine voice but it doesn't meet Yu-bong's standard. Her sari isn't sufficient to make her a master singer. At the end of much consideration, Yu-bong blinds Song-hwa, planting han in his young daughter's heart. She finally obtains the sari voice her father
"could not achieve for her, but she wanders the country like a cloud in her sightless condition. There is another aspect worthy of attention in this movie that is regarded as a victory in aesthetics. This is the
different ways by those in their fifties and sixties who directly underwent the degradation of poverty and colonialism, those in their thirties and forties who faced it only indirectly, and those in their teens and twenties who have no experience whatsoever with poverty or colonialism. For the older generation, Sopyonje evoked their forgotten past, but clouded in hazy nostalgia. To the middle generation, now of an age to understand their parents' suffering, it provided a sense of the continuity of life.
Moreover, Yi Yong-mi remarks that perspectives on tradition are also different from one generation to the next. She notes that the view that South Korean traditional cultural arts are no longer "the shameful and squalid smell of kimch'i" that must be discarded" but one of the "arts" that can rightfully be displayed anywhere in the world is beginning to take root among those who are under forty. She connects this to the traditional arts revival movement of the 1970s, the decade in which this age group began to enter college. As she points out, South Koreans are trying to free themselves from the colonial era in which all that was "ours" was seen to be "squalid." The voice of a generation trying to restore pride in "ours" is becoming louder.
But is the younger generation's image of "our culture" connected to ban? This is not likely. Moreover, there are more than a few people within the younger generation who either have no image of "our culture" or who are trying not to have any image of "our culture" at all. As Yi Yong-mi notes, many in their teens and twenties buy the Sopyonje soundtrack after being impressed by the music in the movie-much as they come to appreciate Mozart after seeing Amadeus or opera after seeing Phantom of the Opera. To them, "our tradition" is simply another available artistic product, not something to hold more dear because it is "ours." Because aspects of the "feudal," the "modern," and the "postmodern"-usually conceptualized as being non-simultaneousco-exist in South Korean society today, notions of "ours" and "nation" take on very different casts depending on the viewer. Reading a present in which the non-simultaneous simultaneously exist is the shortcut to finding the self. Revealing through difference-not erasing difference-is what's important. The alternative is to fall into yet another tyranny of conformity.
Much of the commotion surrounding Sopvonje was caused by generational difference. The father's generation may have finally realized that the West is not an adequate cultural goal, but many of the younger generation harbor great doubts about any return to the culture of their fathers. One snldent (Class of 1991, Yong-sok) goes further and asks whether we really have pride in our culture. For this student, the cry "No matter what kind of ruckus Japanese songs and Western songs raise, there will come a day when p'ansori reigns supreme"i4 reverberates with self-loathing.
In fact, Sopyonje does not really speak with a uniform voice. If one looks carefully at the characters depicted in this movie, it becomes clear that they are, in a way, very unfamiliar to us. Several students stated that even to their Korean selves, the movie's characters came across as strange and mysterious. The father character is bursting with pride in p'ansori for no apparent reason, steadfastly clinging to the conviction that "a time will come when p'ansori reigns supreme"-even though at that time it was a lowbrow art form that brought little more than scorn and a few pennies to its practitioners. Han is bequeathed to his daughter as if it were his dying wish. Whether or not that daughter understood him cannot be fathomed, and the final scene in which she sings sori with her younger brother all night long merely makes it more ambiguous. The daughter is depicted as if she were born only for p'ansori, never feeling hunger nor, despite her youth, sexual or romantic urges. The only understandable character in the movie is the younger brother, who runs away from home, complaining that p'ansori doesn't provide a decent living. Here is one student's reaction to this:
When watching Sopyonje I felt hurt and sorrow and rather complicated emotions. It wasn't just because of the characters' struggle to maintain p'ansori, this piece of our past, or that the female character became blind, or that the circumstances of that time period were bad. Anyway, I can't reveal any more than that it hurt. Although if I've had this much education, I should be able to supply something for discussion, a mute person is just as comfortable as a blind person. (Class of 1989, Song-gvu)
Probably not everyone who saw it was as touched by the film. One overseas Korean who had been away from the country for a long time said that watching this movie was like watching a "French" movie, and he asked, "When did Korea become so French?" What is the meaning of this question?
There are elements in Sopyonje that go against what is commonly considered to he the "national sentiment." One is the scene where the father blinds his daughter; this made many viewers uncomfortable. One student in my class, trying earnestly to understand, went so far as to say that the father could commit such an act because the woman was not his biological daughter. More than a few students saw it as a human rights issue. In a society that says "one's body is received from one's parents,"1' one should be increasingly uncomfortable with this act the more one talks about "tradition." No matter that the prototype of Simch'ong° exists, artistic frenzy that can lead a person to blind a daughter is reminiscent not of something Korean but rather of a Van Gogh who cuts off his own ear. Despite their unease, however, few people complained about this scene. Does this mean that South Koreans are beginning to view Van Gogh-like artists, "modern" people with artistic temperaments, as acceptable and attractive?
Another scene that is difficult to comprehend from the perspective of the commonly understood "Korean sentiment" is the brother-sister reunion: after a night of singing sori together, they part without acknowledging their identities. However, viewers seem to have easily accepted this scene. Describing it as a refreshing betrayal, renowned novelist Pak Wan-so offers unstinting praise. She writes that during the final scene, "I wanted to leave as I became edgy." She didn't want the emotions built up during the movie to be suddenly lost by an ending in which the characters hugged, cried, and recited lines such as "Sister! It's Tong-ho." The brother and sister's "meeting through music, hugging each other in their minds only, and stoutheartedly parting" is an "advance" and a "transcendence" that is superior to an "immature" meeting, she writes.'
Here is the convergence of Im's "humanism"-a very modern product-and viewers' fervent desire to throw off a feudal and/or refugee sensibility. Regarding the hints of an incestuous relationship
SOPYON]R: CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL MEANING 147
between father and daughter, Im says, "It's not too important whether or not there was an incestuous relationship between Yu-bong and Songhwa. After all, they are both people."' This is a "modern" view of humanity that departs from the feudal norm and sees people first and foremost as people. Regarding the brother-sister reunion, he says, "The reason that they meet but can't bring themselves to reveal their identities is that they know all too well that neither can he of any help to the other in the future."'`" This is definitely a view of humanity that is far from the "Korean" way of thinking. This "wordless parting" scene is an astonishingly new feature of South Korean movies, although it is found quite frequently in Italian and French art films. Considering that not too long ago South Koreans wept copiously while watching the televised reunions of families separated_ during the Korean War, this final scene is not "Korean" at all.
In reply to a student who, during an invited lecture at Yonsei University in fall 1993, asked Im why he didn't allow the brother and sister to unburden their hearts in reunion, he said that his personal familiarity with the drifter's life had taught him that there were times when it was better for separated relatives not to meet. The perspective on life he revealed here is connected to an Asian sense of human ties--that is, not to a Confucian ethic but to a Buddhist salvation that comes from renouncing this world and accepting fate. This is what Im has come to understand while living his life. And he shows that he clearly considers it to be the condition of all human beings, not the particular "something of Korean people who have been oppressed." His handling of the brother-sister reunion comes out of his modern and Buddhist perspective on life. Today's moviegoers, both young and old, prefer that kind of parting. Im told his own story honestly, and that it made a positive impression on viewers should not be overlooked.
The movie itself cannot really be said to display thorough mastery of cinematic language, however. First of all, it has an overabundance of sermonizing and discursive explanations. For example, consider lines such as "Don't stay in your ban, but overcome it" and "There is the eastern style and the western style, but when you get to a certain level, the difference between them disappears."20 Long passages contain such expressions as "I made your eyes go blind. Have you forgiven me?"
This kind of speech is onerous to modern viewers, who enjoy the subtle taste of ellipses. But apparently audiences still enjoy such sermons: I believe more viewers were drawn to the film because of them than were repulsed by them. In a sense, daring to preach sermons increased the movie's mass popularity. Where did Im find the confidence to do this? That kind of confidence is possible when one is faithful to one's own life.
In an article describing his travels with the production crew, Yi Ch'ong-jun (the author of the story on which the movie is based) describes the thoroughness of Im, who continued to interrogate the author even after he had come up with an answer or a solution. Not only the director but the entire film crew labored on the movie with complete craftsmanship.2' The essayist Yi Yong-mi points to "professionalism" as precisely the quality that made the film attractive to youth. The artistry of the father character and the "skill" of the movie's production team-which possessed a level of craftsmanship not usually nurtured in South Korean society-played important roles in the movie's popularity.
Then doesn't Sopyonje reflect changed values and aesthetics even though it seems to mirror traditional values and aesthetics? And aren't those values and aesthetics, rather than being "characteristically Korean," actually closer to the scripts of the Western movies South Koreans have watched so often? Doesn't the line "When you reach the stage of tugum, you forget hunger and are not envious of riches and splendor" express the desire of a modern person who has come to demand more than material goods? By focusing on aesthetic obsession and the drifter lifestyle, doesn't the movie actually touch the sensibilities of modern urbanites who feel that "life is ultimately a sojourner's road and a lonesome journey"-especially those urbanites who are all the more lonely and fragmented due to a Third World development process yet still want to cling to their last remaining dreams? In this regard, aren't p'ansori and Korea's rural scenery the props that put "Korean" clothes on modern subjects? This movie's excellence lies in taking a very modern subject-"asking new questions about one's identity"-and developing it in a very modern way. Like Akira Kurosawa in The Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Im borrows a "traditional" setting but succeeds in making a modern movie with a modern subject. It may be that only now are South Koreans really entering the modern age.
Let's return now to our first questions: What is "tradition" and what is "Koreanness"? Was it to find "something Korean" that the pop group Si) T'ae-ji and Boys used the traditional Korean wind instrument, the t'uep'yongso, in the song "Hayoga"? Is it an important attempt to find "ourselves" if South Korean children, stimulated by So T'ae-ji and Boys, develop an interest in playing the t'aep'vongso? Is the music of Kim Yong-dong "traditional Korean music" or "new traditional Korean music"? Is "new traditional Korean music" experimental music that is a form of the meditation music popular worldwide or is it experimental Korean music? ZZ Are the "modern" and the "traditional" mutually exclusive or do they go together? It is said that "a succession of various experiments has brought a new feel and form to traditional Korean music-stereotyped as difficult-and stiff and thus unpopular and boldly put it in sync with today's modern public.' What kind of harmony is the harmony that Sopyonje has achieved between the "modern" and the "traditional"? What is the tradition that is on the verge of being remade through Sopyonje?
Reading Movies in the Midst of Discourse Formation
Sopyonje does not provide final answers to these questions. However, it greatly touched the emotions of those South Koreans who are either feverishly looking for something or who have simply given up and fallen into slumber. That which has been hidden behind the rush of economic growth, that which has been rigidly suppressed by a generation struggling to survive or perhaps to fulfill ambitions, that something is beginning to wriggle. The movie has also jogged the self=consciousness of a younger generation that had resigned itself to wandering in an endless sea of floating "signs" unattached to either nation or community.
The movement to revive traditional culture is really an indication of modernity and an effort to rescue oneself. It's both an ideological ritual intended to help reclaim the lost past and an uprising against a materialist culture that turns humans into instruments. It's also a deliberate effort to differentiate oneself within a global homogenization. In other words, in the midst of profound restructuring of both the
national and world orders, it is the clear expression of a will to create one's identity anew in a manner that better fits the times. "Han" and "rapture" surface in the midst of such turmoil as if they were the everlasting essence of ourselves. Some people become more enthusiastic about efforts to esscntialize tradition, while others begin to realize that such essentializing is dangerous.
While the nascent movement to find oneself can be described as "nationalism," it is a nationalism different from the "oppositional nationalism" in resistance to colossal foreign power that Koreans have known in the past. As mentioned earlier, it is dangerous to force an identity to fit into something partial because the result may be even greater isolation and alienation. The nationalism that remakes Koreans must emphasize revitalization, cultural self generation, and productivity. The realization that "our culture is precious" must not be equated with the struggles of a neocolonialist era in which the victim mentality becomes the driving force; rather it must involve a postcolonial self-awakening that tries to shed that mentality. As Im himself has remarked, had this movie been released in the 49806 it would probably not have become a popular success. South Korea's present situation demands a new leap forward, and Sopyonje is culturally and historically important because it provides the means to begin a serious discussion about the nature and direction of this leap.
Witnessing the Sopyonje phenomenon, I became aware that many people are ardently waiting for a storyteller who can tell "one's own story." Whether they are tired of philosophical gags and fables or of old-fashioned family tragedies, or whether they are fed up with rampant materialism, many people arc longing for something that comes out of their own selves. Just as foreign plays in translation no longer attract viewers, people want to hear words that speak to their own hearts. They want to hear not translated speech but words that resonate deep within their own lives. A movie without one's own voice chases away any and all viewers.
Under current circumstances, when a South Korean movie wins a prize in a Western film festival, this attests either to the country's expanding national strength or to the enduring strength of orientalism. South Koreans have lived for too long under the domination of Western
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culture, and they have largely internalized the Western perspective on Asia known as orientalism. This perspective is now being imported to Asia itself, and it has become the lens through which Asians see themselves. The movies that have been made with the intent of winning prizes at Western film festivals have generally adopted an orientalist point of view. These movies emphasize things that fit Western tastes and exoticize Asian civilizations. Im Kwon-Taek's Surrogate Mother (Ssibaji, 1986) is one example. Pae Yong-Kyun's Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East (Dalmaga tongtchok biro kan kkadakun, 1989) is another. But were there Koreans within those movies? The words that Koreans are so earnestly trying to say and hear cannot be found there.
Some commentators on Sopyonje's success have seen it in terms of a kind of globalization slogan: "Finally something Korean has become universal." When modernization is a single route leading to a single peak, the slogan "What is the most Korean is the most universal"z4 may make some sense. But when people believe there is only one kind of modernization, there is also only one "subject" in the humanism that has been pursued. All humans on this earth struggle to be that "subject." Logically, just as what was "the most British" became "the most universal," what is "the most Korean" can also be "the most universal." But in reality, those in the margins always fall short of becoming that kind of subject. Competition with a "center" possessed of accumulated capabilities and overpowering capital can never be a fair game. No matter how South Koreans strive, it is still difficult within this global structure for them to produce work that is of the highest quality according to "universal" (Western) standards. And, upon reflection, there is no reason South Koreans should want to produce such a work. Would a South Korean movie attract a million viewers somewhere other than South Korea? An excellent movie emerges when its creator has an honest conversation with one viewer. Then the audience is not the anonymous masses or the "universal human" spread across the world but a group of individuals who share concrete historicity. In this sense, Sopyonje symbolizes the triumph of a local movie within a locality.
A turn toward postcolonialization is possible when one asks whether there is only one path toward modernization. Serious reflection regarding Western-oriented "development" had already begun even before the
First World War. The postindustrial West is now reflecting on a modernization that overemphasized one aspect of the "capitalist spirit" i.e., "instrumentalist rationality"-and is trying to recover from the severely colonized zeitgeist it constructed.25 What is necessary now for South Koreans, who have never created either a "capitalist spirit" or a "rationalism" but instead have been obsessed with instrumentalizing people in order to increase productivity? There is an enormous difference between a society where industrialization is indigenously driven and one where industrialization has been forcibly transplanted. Doesn't that difference become evident when the West begins a self-inquiry into its expansive "modernity" while South Koreans cling to partial and abstract words like "Ilan" and "rapture"? They must think deeply about the impact of this difference on the process of healing oneself. South Koreans must take a good look at themselves and consider the possibility that they are simply consoling themselves with idle talk. Instead of returning to "things Korean," they should now pursue, in a rapidly changing global structure, an alternative modernity based on a new subjectivity. This is especially important in an age where homogenization and heterogenization are simultaneously happening at both local and global levels.
Although Sopyonje and So T'ae-ji and Boys are generally considered to be diverse phenomena, I read in them identical meanings reflective of the current era. I see Bob Dylan in Kim Min-gi's music, the Beatles' harmonization in the songs of TOlgukhwa, Elton John's piano in the instrumentals of Tongmulwon, and Deep Purple in the performance of Shin Hae-ch'o1.26 Of course my judgment may not be shared by others. It is possible that Shin Hae-ch'Ol hates Deep Purple-or has never even heard of the band. But at the very least I hear a similarity in their music; indeed, I think the world is becoming one in the sense that the music of, say, SO T'ae-ji and Boys is reminiscent of so many different performers that it becomes impossible to identify any original sources. To the point that debate over mimicry is now moot, South Koreans have internalized things of the "First World" whether they like it or not, and they live within those conditions. But South Koreans are not yet Westerners, and Westerners are not Koreans. That distinction is not easy to fathom, and neither is it an essentialist one. South Koreans are being made different by outside forces, but they also are making
SOPYONJE: CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL MEANING 153
themselves different. If up to now a Western-oriented modernization has homogenized them, blurring the differences, then South Koreans must discard this full-blown "colonialist modernity" and search for the path toward an "alternative modernity," recognizing differences within and without.
The ultimate reason for writing this essay is because I want to see good movies of our own. I too want to have many Korean directors whom I love. South Koreans' collective misfortune has been to suffer the rapid pace of compressed development, leaving no time for self reflection. In truth, South Koreans have lived bleakly for too long. Unable to endure such bleakness any longer, they then lived under a delusion: as if other people's culture were their own, as if others' dreams were their dreams, as if the events that occurred in other people's lands had also occurred in their own.
Both a new pair of spectacles through which South Koreans can see themselves and the "process" of creating new viewers with those glasses are needed now. It is the responsibility of filmmakers to make good movies, and it is the responsibility of moviegoers to attend good movies. The responsibility of a cultural critic is not to tell audiences how to view social phenomena, but to help people, standing within their own lives, to imagine freely.
1. P'ansori is a traditional South Korean cultural form that can he compared to opera. Each opera consists of a lengthy series of songs that together tell a story. Unlike Western and Chinese operas, the story is usually told by one singer, who is accompanied by a drummer. There is no elaborate set, only the singer, who stands, and the drummer, who sits. Usually the only prop is a handheld, folding fan, which the singer uses for emphasis and drama. As the vocalist sings, he or she takes on the role-of each character in turn. There are five extant operas, all of them based on famous Korean 4olktalcs. The best known (and the ones showcased in the movie) are the Tale of Ch'nnhvang and the Tale of Simch'ong. P'ansori was a cultural form traditionally practiced by the lower classes; it was considered such "lowbrow" culture that no aristocrat would ever deign to learn it. Many practitioners of p'ansori are said to have been traveling performers who wandered from town to town. Although the singers were scorned as inferior by the upper classes, they were often called to perform their art at parties and other aristocratic festivities. Today, p'ansori is recognized as a national cultural treasure, and several master p'ansori singers have been designated by the South Korean government as living human cultural treasures-a designation that brings some measure of public recognition and a nominal stipend. Trans.
2. "Sopvonje"Movie Book, ed. Im Kwon-Taek (Seoul: Hamil, 1993), referred to hereafter as the Sopvonje hook. Trans.
3. Kang Chun-man, "Sopyonje Is Ruining Korean Movies," Mal, October 1993, 226. [This article was published too late to be included in the Soponje book. Trans.]
4. The term sadaejuii has historically been used to characterize the ChosOn dynasty's relationship and attitude toward China, a relationship often likened to that between a little brother and his big brother. Today the term is commonly used to mean an overweening deference to and imitation of dominant nations, particularly the United States, that is comparable to a colonial mentality. Trans.
5. Uri rnunhtva ch'atki or "Searching for our culture" was a movement that arose in the 1970S on college campuses as students began to reconstruct and reinterpret traditional Korean cultural forms. The movement was a response to cultural colonialism and an effort to strengthen Korean identity. It focused not on the "highbrow" culture of court music and dance but on the "lowbrow" culture of agricultural peasants. Thus the cultural forms most widely taught were t'alch'usn or mask dance-dramas with masked characters who often lampooned upper-class Korean society-and p'ungmul-a mix of drumming and dancing later popularized in modernized form by Kim Tok-su's Samulnori, a musical performance played with four traditional Korean percussion instruments. In recent years, the theme of "searching for our culture" has been widely popularized, as is evident in the enthusiastic public reception of Samulnori and other forms of Korean cultural expression as well as in numerous books that deal with various aspects of traditional cultural forms. Trans.
6. Kim Yu-jin, Dongdae Sinmun, May 5, 1993, qtd. in the Sopvonje book,
7. Han Mybng-hi, Korea Daily, July 25, 1993, "The Moon Waxes And Wanes, Wanes And Waxes," qtd. in the Sopvonje book, 161.
8. Minjok can be loosely translated as "nation" or "people" in the sense of a distinct group. It is often used by Koreans to refer to themselves as a people distinct from others. Toenjang is a fermented soy bean paste that is a staple condiment and seasoning in Korean cooking. It is also used figuratively, as in this passage, to evoke a rustic, traditional folk atmosphere and also to imply authenticity of Korean identity. The reference to ocher earth is used both literally and figuratively to evoke a traditional rural world seen as "home." Trans.
9. In South Korea, the class year denotes the year of entry into college, and it is a common identifier among students and alumni. Trans.
10. Tigiucr, literally "acquisition of sound," refers to acquiring the singing voice of a true sori artist, i.e., a sublime voice that represents the heart and soul of p'ansuri. Trans.
11. Yi Se-rvong, "The Humanist Director Im Kwon-Tack, Who Found Korean Identity in Sopyonjr," Master Lift, April 1993, 32-37.
12. Yi Yong-mi, "Sopyonjc, Noise and Kim So-w l," Munhtl'a kwahak, no. 4, 233-)!.
13. Kicncb'i is a staple dish in Korean cuisine and consists of vegetables-usually either cabbage or radishes-steeped in a hot, garlicky, red pepper sauce. The dish has a strong smell that many Koreans believe is offensive to Westerners. The admonition not to cat kirrtch'i or other garlicky foods before an appointment with foreigners remains a common one, and many Koreans still worry that foreigners, particularly Westerners, will find Korean food-and, by extension, the Korean people and all other things Korean-smelly and offensive. Trans.
14. This is a famous line uttered by the Either in the movie; it was used widely in posters advertising the film. Trans.
15. This saying was often used to emphasize that one should take care of one's body out of respect for one's parents. Trans.
16. Simch'6ng, a character in a traditional folktale, sacrifices her life so that her blind and widowed father may sec. Trans.
17. Pak Wan-se), Kvunti Hvang Siamun, May 29, 1993, qtd. in the Sopvocrje book, 155.
18. Sopvocrje book, 202.
19. Ibid., 204.
20. Eastern style ( tongp'y6nje ) and western style (seip'yanje) are two styles of p'ansori developed in ChOlla Province in southwestern Korea. Sop'ylirtjc, whence comes the movie's title, is prevalent in the flat, agricultural, western region of the province. It has a style characterized as feminine, with many musical flourishes and ornamentation, whereas tonrtp'v nje, developed in the mountainous eastern region, has a simpler, more straightforward style characterized as masculine. Trans.
21. Yi Ch'ing-jun has said, "The short story was my responsibility, but the movie is theirs." See the Sopvocrje hook, 150-53.
22. So T'ae-ji is the leader of-South Korea's first rap group. When the group debuted in the early 1990s, it provoked another round of discussion on whether Koreans were developing their own style of modern music or simply mimicking Westerners. The t'acp'vOngso is a traditional Korean wind instrument with a wooden, flute-like body and a metal end that flares out like a trumpet. Kim Yemgdong composes music that mixes traditional Korean forms with modern forms.
조한혜정 2004 05 01
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