An historic album made by a hitherto unknown Korean popular music singer from the colonial period is literally unearthed in a modern-day construction site. Miraculously, although the LP is damaged, audio engineers can restore the sound to something like the original, for broadcast on a golden oldies radio show. But who is the singer, and how come nothing is known of her?
Thus starts Park Heung-sik’s period drama Love, Lies (2016) which is set in the years immediately preceding liberation in 1945 and explores two themes: the age-old theme of a love triangle, and the slightly more unusual one of the emergence of new popular music and the decline of more traditional forms of entertainment. Along the way, we maybe appreciate that not much changes in the music industry. If the world of K-pop today is dominated today by the big companies training up their boy and girl bands from an early age, so, in the colonial period (if this movie is close to reality) there were training academies that groomed girls from childhood in deportment and the traditional performing arts, including the performance of jeongga – songs that used to be appreciated by the Joseon dynasty literati. Once they had finished their training, the top gisaengs would have their diaries managed by the academy / agency, and those who were less skilled in the arts would have their bodies rented out.
Of course, as the 20th century gradually advances there are fewer and fewer cognoscenti who have the refinement to appreciate the old performing styles or the money to pay for them. And inevitably those with the money in colonial Korea are the Japanese. Meanwhile more popular forms of music are being introduced from Japan, that will eventually become Trot.
It is in this world that two bosom friends, just graduated from the training academy, try to make their way. So-yool, played by Han Hyo-joo, is the best performer in her year, and has caught the eye of the Japanese police commissioner. Her sweetheart is handsome songwriter Yoon-woo (played by Yoo Yeon-seok), who writes for one of the top popular singers of the day. He is totally devoted to So-yool, and he pledges to marry her, despite the fact she is a mere entertainer. So-yool’s best friend Yeon-hee (played by Chun Woo-hee, the lead in Han Gong-ju) proves herself a natural at the new singing styles and soon forges a strong musical relationship with Yoon-woo which develops into romance. Inevitably, So-yool’s jealousy is inflamed on both fronts, and what follows is a chain of events triggered by So-yool’s spiteful act of vengeance.
Director Park’s previous movie, Memories of the Sword, looked beautiful and so does this one. The interiors of the gisaeng training academy, the costumes and street scenery, including the trams, all look lovely. And if Yeon-hee’s singing style feels more 21st century than 1940s, that may be my ignorance and it matters not a bit. Chun’s voice is good (she sings the songs herself) and the songs themselves are good too. The contrast between the traditional singing style, enjoyed by so few, and the new songs which could be enjoyed by everyone, could not be more marked. The new popular songs could even provide a sense of nationhood to the downtrodden Koreans; and where a song failed to pass censorship it could still circulate on the black market and end up being sung by ordinary people in the street.
What is equally of musical value, we learn towards the end, is a blend of the traditional singing technique with more modern instruments and compositional styles: a precursor of contemporary gugak fusion music. Such a blend was not popular at the time: it didn’t sell as well as the all-new music. But often music of value can only be properly assessed with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps more could have been made of the musical aspects of the story, but instead the balance is more in favour of the impact of the love triangle falling apart. The movie’s English title, which is the title of a song featured in the movie, manages to unite the musicological thread with the theme of love and betrayal, and thus in a final twist provides a satisfying resolution in the movie’s coda. Music, melodrama and visuals combine to make this an enjoyable way to spend two hours of your time.
Park Heung-sik (박흥식) Love, Lies (해어화, 2016)