Seopyeonje is a film of profound cultural importance, demonstrating the significance of Pansori and reactions to growing Japanese and Western musical influences.
Pansori is performed by a singer, a Gugwangdae, who can take several hours to tell a story, alongside a drummer, or gosu, who uses a traditional Korean drum (buk) to provide the rhythmic accompaniment.
Originally folk entertainment for the lower classes, it was eventually utilised by the Korean elite during the 19th century. The tradition changed underwent Western influence and it is this theme that underpins the anxiety-fuelled rage of the film’s father figure.
The family’s father, Yu-bong (Kim Myung-gon), is determined to pass down his Pansori skills to his adoptive children Song-hwa (Oh Jung-hae) and Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-chul).
With the mother dying in childbirth, Song-hwa and Dong-ho are left at the mercy of Yu-bong's Pansori obsession. Teaching the young children, he discovers Song-hwa's talent for singing and makes the more tone-deaf Dong-ho the gosu (drummer).
His pursuit of perfection sees Yu-bong treat the children, and eventually young adults, in harsh terms. They live a transient lifestyle, moving around trying to get by on sporadic Pansori gigs.
Yu-bong is predominantly using these sparse funds for his drinking, a vice contributing to his fits of anger over his perceived short-fallings in their performances.
After the latest rollicking, Dong-ho decides he has had enough and leaves. We then join the story as he tries to track down his sister years later, piecing together clues on their latest travel track.
The film contains one of Korean cinema’s most iconic scenes as the trio dance and sing down a long road, a scene filled with happiness but somehow still gloomy and woeful.
This woe stems from the hostage-like relationship between the harsh musical master and his unwilling adoptive students.
The father is filled with rage, a man out of time and left screaming at a world that has left behind many elements of traditional Pansori in pursuit of more international versions of entertainment.
His adoptive children are the victims of this rage and even as Dong-ho runs away from the situation, he cannot outrun the guilt he feels at his sister’s continued suffering.
The film does a superb job of demonstrating the power of Pansori, as the depth of the characters' sadness is realised by their performances.
The scenes of travel allow Director Im to produce some stunning frames, the beauty of the Korean landscape laid before us with a soundtrack of its traditional music as accompaniment.
Im Kwon-taek, an unmatched director of over 100 films, was the filmmaker that changed Korean cinema forever, as he switched the industry from making Hollywood imitations to focusing on uniquely Korean stories.
Seopyeonje is one of his most lucid examples of this focus, as we unpack the power of this traditional Korean musical art form in reference to a family unit being pulled apart by an obsession with it.