Festival Film Review: The Singer

Hakgyu (Lee Bong-geun) in his final performance
Hak-gyu (Lee Bong-geun) in his final performance

As is often the case, I was out of town for the London East Asia Film Festival, so I missed the international premiere of the Director’s Cut of Cho Jungrae’s The Singer. I’m not sure if the previously available version has had a formal international premiere – probably not, given the devastation that Covid has wrought on public screenings – but it has been available to watch on Amazon Prime  for a while, which is where I watched it a few months ago. Director Cho was kind enough to provide a screener of his own cut in preparation for an interview with LKL and Hangul Celluloid soon after the Festival closed. LEAFF did not respond to a request for screeners.

The Singer is a movie which cries out to be seen in a theatre, where the sound is going to be so much more real than the speakers connected to your home PC can produce, and where the big screen is going to do more justice to the lush landscapes over which the director and cinematographer have clearly lavished so much care.

Hak-gyu, Dae-bong and Cheong set off in search of Gan-nan
Hak-gyu, Dae-bong and Cheong set off in search of Gan-nan

It’s a movie which on the surface owes much to Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje – but the debt goes much further than scenes of the Jeolla countryside through which itinerant pansori songsters journey, as Director Cho freely admits. Seeing Seopyeonje literally changed the course of his life, diverting him into the study and practice of traditional music in general and the pansori art in particular. Traditional music formed the soundtrack of his first feature to be seen widely outside of Korea – Spirit’s Homecoming (LKL review here) – and is front and centre in The Singer.

The Singer portrays an actual and metaphorical journey on many levels. At the most obvious level the central character, the talented but impoverished singer and performer Shim Hak-gyu (played by Lee Bong-geun), is on a quest in search of his wife, kidnapped by people-traffickers who have the protection of nobles linked to the provincial governor in Jeonju.

Movie still: Has anyone seen my wife?
Has anyone seen my wife?

Second, as becomes clear as the narrative of the movie unfolds, this is a fictional telling of the story of how one of the classics of the Pansori canon – Shimcheongga – was composed. As he journeys, Hak-gyu creates the story of Blind Man Shim and his filial daughter, Cheong, to entertain his fellow-travellers and his audiences in the market-places where he performs. After each performance he solicits his audience for any information they might have about the whereabouts of his wife and the activities of the people traffickers. Among his fellow travellers is his own daughter, Cheong (Kim Ha-yeon), who managed to evade the traffickers when her mother Gan-nan (Kim Yu-ri) was seized.  In the melee, however, she suffered an injury which caused her to become blind. This is not the only element in Hak-gyu’s journey to be incorporated (with amendment) into the Shimcheongga tale he creates on the road.

Another layer in the journey portrayed in the movie is the development of the pansori art and technique itself.  As Director Cho explained to us, one of the difficulties experienced by the accomplished pansori singer Lee Bong-geun in making the movie was that in the earlier scenes he is meant to sing pansori “badly”, or at least not in its most fully-developed form. As he nears the end of his physical journey in search of his wife, and as he composes the resolution of the tale of Blind Man Shim, his pansori voice and technique is honed and perfected until the climactic final performance of the conclusion his new story and art form at the end of the movie.

Hakgyu and Daebong (Park Chul-min) perform together
Hakgyu and Dae-bong (Park Chul-min) perform together

Thus although The Singer is a pansori movie like Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje, Cheonnyeonhak and Chunhyang they do different things. Seopyeonje and its sequel are adaptations of Yi Chong-jun’s haunting sequence of short stories and explore the nature of han while pleading for the survival of the traditional art form in the face the popularity of encroaching western culture (a plea which the famous 1993 movie contributed to fulfilling); Chunhyang is a retelling of the classic pansori tale. The Singer was authored by the director, himself a musician trained in the traditional techniques. It explores the artistic process itself and the nature of pansori as rooted in the lives of the common people, all wrapped in a simple tale involving the eternal struggle of the poor against their rich oppressors early in the reign of King Yeongjo (r 1724 – 1776), a struggle which, in this instance at least, sees wrongs righted and the unjust punished.

The Singer: Domestic bliss
Domestic bliss

If some of the scenes look too perfect – the actors’ teeth too white, the clothes too well-laundered, the houses and streets too clean – we don’t mind because we suspend disbelief. The early scenes of domestic bliss, with Gan-nan and Cheong playing around the family’s washing, and many of the scenes in the villages and countryside, are a delight to the eye, making the contrast with the conditions suffered by the victims of the people-traffickers more stark.

The story itself, on its surface, is simple and does not make us think too much – apart, maybe, from drawing some parallels with current times when money, not morality, is what brings political power. But what brings satisfaction is the creation of the story within the story and the realisation that what we are seeing is a tribute to the art of pansori: its power as entertainment, its musical technique, and its place in Korean culture and society.

Singer: Happy Times
Happy times

Cho Jungrae (조정래) The Singer (광대: 소리꾼 감독판, 2020) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0

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Photos © Little Big Pictures

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