Crossroads of Youth – a constantly-evolving performance of Korea’s earliest silent film

Crossroads of Youth poster

Crossroads of Youth is one of Korea’s earliest silent films, which would have at the time had narration by a byeonsa (the Korean equivalent of the Japanese benshi). The function of the byeonsa was to tell the story in the absence of diagetic dialogue (which in Western cinema was told through intertitles), in addition to the live music that accompanied the flickering images on the screen. It seems likely that as in Japan, byeonsa would have garnered fans, who would flock to see them, rather than the film that was showing. It is difficult to understand the impact of the byeonsa without actually experiencing the performance that accompanied cinema in the early years of the century in Korea.

I was lucky enough to be invited to see it, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre, at the Barbican in London on 2nd August 2012. It was an event that I shall not forget quickly.

Crossroads of Youth (1934)
Crossroads of Youth (1934)

Crossroads of Youth premiered in Korea in 1934 and the print has been restored by KOFA. It was the second feature film of Ahn Jong-hwa, who prior to directing had been an actor himself. Crossroads of Youth is based upon the tribulations of a young man, Yong-bok, whose wife of seven years deserts him for a wealthier man, Kye-chul, upon which Yong-bok leaves his village and moves to Seoul in search of a new and better life. While in Seoul, Yong-bok meets the lovely Kye-soon, who is looking after her sick father and her younger sister. Kye-soon falls in love with Yong-bok, but tragically falls foul of the manipulative and decadent Kye-chul – whose decadence is signaled through his fascination with Westernization – who sexually assaults her, having previously done the same to Yong-bok’s sister, Young-ok, who has come to Seoul searching for her brother. Pushed to the extremes, Yong-bok takes his revenge against Kye-chul, savagely beating up his adversary, before leaving Seoul with Kye-chul and Young-ok.

Curtain call at the end of Crossroads of Youth at the Barbican (Photo credit: KCCUK)
Curtain call at the end of Crossroads of Youth at the Barbican (Photo credit: KCCUK)

In its contemporary incarnation, the ‘performance’ (which I am using here instead of screening to stress the ‘eventness’ of the experience), is directed by Kim Tae-yong, who co-directed one of my favourite Korean ‘horror’ films of all time, Memento Mori (여고괴담 두번째 이야기: 1999), with Director MIN Kyu-dong – the second in the Whispering Corridors series (1998-2010). This was then the third film of Director Kim’s that I had seen, as last year I saw his 1996 family [melo]drama, Family Ties (가족의 탄생) at the free screening at the Korean Cultural Centre.

This performance was the second in the London: the first took place last year as part of the Thames Festival.

Actor Jo Hee-bong narrating
Actor Cho Hee-bong narrating (Photo credit: KCCUK)

The narrator, actor Cho Hee-bong, was wonderful in a demanding role which meant that he had to adopt different roles, including that of the narrator, during the 70 minutes running time, with only short breaks during the musical numbers. The nuances of the narration, may well have been lost to non-Korean speakers, but that didn’t prevent the audience laughing at the comedic elements of the performance, which were juxtaposed against the dramatic melodrama of the original ‘text’. The musical accompaniment was suitably evocative, mixing together the traditional and the contemporary, and the musical numbers were powerful and functioned to further foreground the meeting of the melodramatic and comedic that defined this powerful performance. Crossroads of Youth cannot be reduced to mere plot elements, as it is an experience that is constituted through its “eventness”. Mikhail Bakhtin writes: ’The event of being is a phenomenological concept, for being presents itself into a living consciousness as an event, and a living consciousness actually orients itself and lives in it as in an event.’1

Director Kim told me that he changes elements in the script from year to year, so that the performance of Crossroads of Youth is in continual metamorphosis. This is without doubt the most ambitious project of Director Kim’s career, and one of the most successful. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing it again, knowing that a second ‘experience’ will be of necessity a different experience. Director Kim’s project is one which returns the excitement and spectacle to cinema, constructing an active audience through its ‘eventness’ rather than one dazzled by the mere spectacle of so many contemporary films – which are all surface and no substance. Here the opposite was true.

This review was first published on Oriental Nightmares and is reposted here with Colette’s permission.

  1. 1993, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Austin: University of Texas Press, p. 78 []

2 thoughts on “Crossroads of Youth – a constantly-evolving performance of Korea’s earliest silent film

  1. 서방앤: This event was sublime. I really hope to see it or another like it again. Narrator Cho Hee-bong was just perfect. I loved the cheeky jokes, used sparingly, for example when he did the voices of three onscreen women, then had one of them say, ‘isn’t it strange that we all have the same voice?’ I was laughing for about 20 minutes after that.

    Here’s a taster (unfortunately without subtitles) of Cho Hee-bong in full flow:

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