One singer and one drummer on an otherwise nearly bare stage, expressing the pain of Korea for four or five hours: the prospect, to a great many foreigners, does not immediately appeal. Then again, despite its deep roots in the culture, the traditional form of musical storytelling called pansori (판소리) didn’t much appeal to a great many Koreans for a long stretch of the twentieth century, if not due to distaste then to unfamiliarity. But “Korea’s opera” has seen a revival of interest in recent decades, due in part to the massive success in 1993 of a movie about, and only about, the then seemingly dying art and the emotion that drives it: Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje (서편제).
The prolific Im, still working today after 102 films and counting, directed in the first years of the 1990s a trilogy of popular gangster pictures, General’s Son (장군의 아들) and its two sequels. (You can watch the first of them on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel, as well as Im’s 1976 Wangsimni, My Hometown, the last movie we featured in this series.) Their considerable box-office return gave him a free hand to make a passion project, and on paper Seopyeonje looks like the very definition of one: a middle-aged filmmaker who remembers a very different time in his rapidly developing homeland tells a story, in the form of a period piece within a period piece, of a wandering pansori master and his two young charges whom history has already left behind, but whose suffering only enriches the tradition to which they have dedicated their lives.
That suffering produces an emotion much written about as unique to the Korean people: han (한, often written with the Chinese character 恨), variously explained in English as “lifelong regret,” “a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds” connoting “aspects of lament and unavenged injustice,” the “sentiment that one develops when one cannot or is not allowed to express feelings of oppression, alienation, or exploitation because one is trapped in an unequal power relationship,” and an “acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong.” Fictional United States President Josiah Bartlet, on the episode of The West Wing when he has to turn away a North Korean asylum-seeker, explains it as “a sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there’s hope.”
Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.