Interview: Cho Jungrae (The Singer, 2020)

Cho Jungrae

I watched Cho Jungrae’s 2020 movie The Singer earlier this year online, after being told by a friend of the director that it was available on Amazon Prime. It struck me as a fresh take on the pansori movie genre: instead of telling a pansori tale more or less straight like Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang, it imagines how another pansori tale, the Shimcheongga, came to be created. Thanks to some subsequent online browsing, notably on Seoul Stages, I learned that Director Cho was a trained pansori drummer – he even merits a couple of mentions in Haekyung Um’s Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity – and this made me want to get deeper into the movie. The planned screening of the Director’s Cut of the movie at LEAFF 2021 provided the impetus, and the same friend who had introduced me to the film in the first place acted as go-between in setting up a Zoom interview with the director. I invited Paul Quinn of Hangul Culluloid to join, in case I ran out of questions. In the end, as we conferred together in preparation for the interview, we realised that we both wanted to cover pretty much the same ground, so in the transcript below we keep it anonymous. We also realised we had far too much material for the time allotted. We are grateful to Director Cho, that even after we had overrun by five minutes he offered to keep going for another ten.

This interview was the most fun time I’ve had in writing for LKL for a while. Thanks to Paul for the transcription, to Seh Roh for interpreting, to Director Cho for his time and to our mutual friend for the introduction.

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Q: First of all, congratulations for the international premiere of The Singer at LEAFF last week and thanks for sending us the screener link. Unfortunately, neither of us could get to the screening and we regret that because the scenery and cinematography I can imagine was fantastic on the big screen – not quite the same on the small screen but, anyway, many congratulations. We have many, many questions – so many that we will definitely not have time to talk about them all – but, first, we wanted to focus on the music: We are very familiar with directors who also write the script. You are a trained and expert Pansori drummer so you’re almost like the Music Director of your movie. How involved were you in the choice of the music and/or the creation of the music, whether it’s just the Pansori music or the other music in the film, too?

Cho Jungrae: Firstly, as you mentioned, in Korea I trained in the National Intangible Cultural Arts Centre as an expert Pansori drummer and worked as that. In answer to your question, there is a very long version that I could give, given time, but to start with the most important thing I have to say straight off is that in 1993 I watched the film Seopyeonje and that’s really where everything began. With The Singer, I wrote the script; I directed it; and while there was a Music Director credited in the film – there is another person who actually filled that role – but on the set I was playing the instruments myself and it’s fair to say that I took over a large chunk of the Music Director role and at the last minute in the film’s final credits I thought about adding myself as additional Music Director but I ultimately decided that might be a bit too much, so I took myself out.

When I first watched Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje in 1993, I experienced this indescribable shock; I was emotionally moved very deeply; I was very attracted by the film and also by the sound of Pansori, which I what Seopyeonje deals with. Prior to that, I had of course studied film and even earlier I had been a theatre actor. I was someone who wasn’t really interested in Korean traditional music or Pansori at all. Of course, in every country there is traditional music and even as a foreigner listening to the traditional music of other countries gives rise to odd or strange feelings inside me, but as a Korean person who having not heard a lot of traditional Korean music prior to that, once I had heard it by watching the film my body literally froze and I guess in trying to find out why it made me feel like that, why I liked it so much and in a way trying to figure out the strength that Korean traditional music has, I went on a kind of journey and most importantly found out that Pansori came from the common people / the working classes and that discovery was very moving for me, too.

After that, you could say that I became crazed and utterly obsessed with Korean traditional music and I made great efforts to pursue it. As I continued my pursuit, I found myself working as a traditional Korean musician as another job and subsequently I filmed traditional Korean music concerts – up to 500 of them. In 2016, I made a film called Spirits’ Homecoming which is about issues surrounding ‘comfort women’ in Korea enforced by Japanese soldiers and I chose to make all the music in that film traditional Korean music. Spirits’ Homecoming was hugely successful in Korea as well as screening internationally and when I was going round with the film, especially abroad, I would get a lot of questions about the music from foreign audiences.

Q: You talked about international traditional music and I’ll have some follow up questions about that shortly, but first let’s get something simple out of the way: Did you find any difficulties in letting Lee Bong-geun perform in the way he wanted to as opposed to the way you wanted him to perform, considering the fact that he is a really well known theatrical Pansori singer and also did you need to give Park Chul-min any tips or lessons on traditional Pansori drumming techniques, to come across as a real Pansori percussionist?

Cho Jungrae: Yes, Lee Bong-geun is a really famous Korean traditional singer in Pansori but also in the Changgeuk genre, which is type of Korean musical or opera. He has played the lead in many musicals in Korea and is, of course, really well known for that but he had never been in films or TV dramas – The Singer was his first ever role. So when we were searching for the person to play our protagonist, we held auditions and all involved were very pleased with the sounds he could make, his Pansori singing style and his acting ability as well. That’s ultimately why I chose to cast him for the role.

Another thing about doing this film was that I wanted to highlight the prototype of the Pansori sound but I thought it would send out the wrong signal if you had the complete, finished, polished sound from the expert Pansori singer from the very beginning of the film, so I spent a really long time discussing that with Lee Bong-geun and he really suffered not being able to do that. As the film progresses, you hear more of the expert singing technique emerging as an ultimately complete sound and as a performer he was telling me that’s really hard to do. Fortunately he achieved that well in spite of those difficulties and I’m really grateful to him for that.

In response to the second part of your question, Park Chul-min is an actor I really like. He’s also in a way someone I very much looked up to and idealised when I was at university. He was really famous back then because of his involvement in student activism – which I was also did – even before he’d ever starred in films or TV dramas. There is musical genre called Nongak which consists the use of a number of traditional Korean instruments such as a drum called Changgo which Park Chul-min was known to play really, really well – he was essentially an expert. Of course, Pansori drumming is different to that and of course I had to find a way to teach him those differences but there is a saying in this genre that roughly states: ‘The most important thing is the drummer / drumming; the second is a great voice / the singer’ to highlight how truly important the drumming is to traditional Korean music and, so, when I was teaching him I thought “There is a reason why he’s so gifted” – because he picked it up so quickly and then he was able to play it himself on the set and if there were times on set where I felt things were lacking a little, I would chip in and contribute or I’d be able to alter it in post-production a little bit.

Q: I found what you said about Park Chul-min being involved in the protest movement and Pansori coming from the people very interesting and I noted that in The Singer people compliment the character of Hak-gyu on his vocal skills, telling him to go and sing for the Court and he says no, he’s not interested. Is that because he’s being modest or shy or is it because Pansori is for the people – the way he is singing is for the people?

Cho Jungrae: If you look at the storyline, that is the point where the sound is becoming completed, as they all get captured and taken in. During the film-making process, the most important thing for me at that stage was that Hak-gyu and his pain and suffering was being focused on – that while he’s in this situation with other people suffering too, he’s still able to create this perfect sound and emerge as this perfect artist. So, in the background you have all these people dealing with a life or death situation but for Hak-gyu his focus is on his family and other people around him who are similar to him. That’s how I chose to focus my direction of the story.

Q: Some of the early instrumental music (as Hak-gyu begins his journey in search of Gan-nan) appeared to me to significantly feature acoustic guitar, later moving more into the background to be largely replaced by more specifically Korean traditional instruments. Could you talk a little about the particular choice and balance of instrumentation used? Also, Seopyeonje, of course, featured both traditional Korean instruments as well as modern but I kind of expected that as the film deals in part with Korean society’s move from traditionalism to modernity but I didn’t expect to hear modern instruments in an entirely traditional film story like The Singer. I do have to say that the featuring of acoustic guitar juxtaposed with traditional instruments works beautifully in your film but it was a surprise, nonetheless. Could you expand on your decision to mix old and new instrumentation, too?

Cho Jungrae: As I mentioned, I’m obsessive and crazed about the Pansori tradition, its sound and its performance. To put that in an extreme way, until I watched Seopyeonje I was living my life without any purpose and watching it truly changed and transformed my entire existence. So, back then and even now I thought a great deal about the question of how I could personally and professionally express how moved I was by Im Kwon-taek’s incredible film and how I could express that feeling to others. Because my film deals wholly with tradition, if that is not expressed well it could come across as more like a lecture with dead acting or indeed something dry and boring that the government has produced , so to avoid all that I knew the role of Music Director in the film was vitally important to the story’s success. The Music Director for the film was Park Seung-won and while he does traditional music, he also performs as part of a team called World Music Group and as \you can tell from the team name they play and perform world music from many countries and I think that combination really helped for this film’s music to come out well.

Q: You’ve mentioned the profound effect that Seopyeonje had on you. Im Kwon-taek, 102 movies –Seopyeonje, Chunhyang, Cheonnyeonhak all based around traditional music and wonderful scenery. With The Singer, did you feel a big responsibility or feel nervous in relation to those amazing films by the amazing Im Kwon-taek about the Pansori tradition, and now your movie, or because you were telling a different story did you feel things were fine?

Cho Jungrae: Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all [Cho Jungrae laughs]. I really never felt any pressure because it was with a very happy heart that I made this film. You know, it’s funny: This is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question. After having done so many interviews I’m really surprised that this question has never been asked before because it is such a natural question to ask. So, I really want to thank you for asking it. Like I’ve said, I hugely respect director Im Kwon-taek. All his works have had a huge influence on me so I really came from a sense of wanting to work hard and in effect gift this film to director Im and I wanted the many people who watch my film to see that it was in a way an homage to him and I wanted them to see the film like that. I, of course, hope they like and enjoy my film but I also hope they get the same feeling from it that I got from watching Seopyeonje. That was one of my main intentions in making the film. I actually had a phone call with him once and he was very supportive and he liked my film and I’m really pleased and grateful for that.

Q: Historically, Pansori can be seen as a voice of the common people to speak out against oppression and injustice and, as Korea modernised, it became important in keeping tradition and traditionalism alive. Where do you feel Pansori sits in Korea today, and considering the explosion in popularity of K-pop both domestically and globally among the younger generations, do you feel Korean youth today still understands and appreciates the cultural importance of Pansori or do you think more needs to be done get younger people interested in it as a musical art and indeed a musical form that they relate to and enjoy?

Cho Jungrae: The Singer was released last year and as a Director’s Cut this year. Unfortunately, as a result of Coronavirus it didn’t get as many viewings on its Korean release as we’d hoped. Now that some time has passed since its release, what we’re seeing is Pansori and Lee Bong-geun gaining a lot of traction, interest and popularity from the media and TV shows. For example, there is a TV show that consists of a Pansori contest and many young people are joining in and wanting to compete in that. You know, in spite of such TV shows and the like Pansori has to be something that you like to be ultimately enjoyed. The music features lyrics using words from 100 years ago, so it’s not easy for young people to understand and like. Fortunately, partly due to my film and partly due to other factors such as the internationally acclaimed K-pop band BTS using the melodies of traditional Korean music there is a sense of Pansori being rediscovered in this moment. So, rather than taking the approach of trying to teach people from every generation about Pansori, I think we should instead try to find ways to allow them to feel and understand it. I think that’s our task.

Q: In the Director’s Cut of The Singer, right at the end of the closing credits there is some footage of Pyongyang. What’s going on there?

Cho Jungrae: So, the film was released last year and the Director’s Cut that you saw this year and I would say there is probably a difference of around 50-60% in terms of how the film was cut and how scenes were swapped in and out. One of the differences is the landscape scenery within the story scenes and like you said I used a lot more shots from Pyongyang. I went to Pyongyang for three weeks of shooting but in 2018 I had been there too and got an agreement to shoot the entire film there. However, in 2019 when Trump and Kim Jong Un met at a summit and had a falling out, the actors starring in the film couldn’t go there anymore. I had talks with the North Koreans about shooting in Pyongyang about four times in Beijing and as a back-up plan I took really high quality camera equipment to Pyongyang when I went rather than the lower quality equipment one would usually use when scouting locations. The process of that three week filming is what was used in the film.

Q: This is more a statement than a question, but I’d still like to hear your thoughts on the subject: I was hugely surprised by the fact that some of the early upbeat instrumental music in The Singer instantly and strongly brought to my mind specific melodies heard in traditional Irish music – with almost a jigs and reels vibe – that I had to learn when I was studying music in college. The only reason I mention that is that it’s really interesting to me that traditional music from one country completely unrelated to another can nonetheless evoke thoughts of that country’s musical forms almost subconsciously, even though the individual musical arts of each are consciously so different overall.

Cho Jungrae: I believe in a basic sense that all humanity is one. The earth is just a tiny dot in relation to the universe and on this earth a lot of us are trying to live our lives, fighting pretty hard and working pretty hard and struggling at times, but at the end of the day we are all brothers and I believe we all have these shared thoughts in spite of being separated by distance and far from one another. Those thoughts can be shared at the speed of light, not just by contact but also by feeling or energy. All of that is shared universally and that is what I really tried to convey in the film and it’s not just through family, but that sharing can be with people you meet on the street or strangers. All of us in essence are one and that is the ultimate message I wanted to give in the film.

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Image kindly provided by Director Cho

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