Understanding the Korean Culture Through Film “Sopyonje”

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Sopyonje, directed by Im Kwon-take is a musical film in South Korea that was released back in 1993 over a decade ago. At the time of the production of the movie, it was not expected that it would trend and trend as it did then. Those involved in its making did not imagine that its creation would go down into the South Korean history (Kim & James, p.20). Its release raised controversies especially in the media industry with national newspapers reporting that the interest of the filmmakers was to earn international popularity rather than domestically. However, it became a local people’s favorite gaining a lot of viewers from the public. Later in the year, the movie witnessed a broad domestic popularity on both college campuses and theaters in Europe and the United States of America (Kim & James, p.24). The film was the first of its kind to get an audience of over million in Seoul solely.
The film made use of pansori, an ancient musical tool that created a hype among many resulting in its resurgence. Sopyonje revived this long forgotten musical genre in the Korean culture. The title Sopyonje is a representation of the feminine version of pansori while the male version is tongp’yonje. As such, pansori is compared to a soap opera due to its lengthy narration. Other commentators give it a comparison to American blues because of the pain expressed in the film. Im not only shows the struggle of maintaining the Korean culture through the use of Pansori but utilizes a woman character as a metaphor that shows the changing history in South Korea. His use of Songhwa as a character in the film is one that has caused divergent views from various schools of thought.
The film is set in the years 1960’s to 1970’s and flashes back to the 1940’s after colonization era by the Japanese a time after the World War II. Pansori is an ancient Korean musical art that became unpopular during the 1990’s with the rapid rates of modernization. It is acted by a man who is quite rigid and does not flow smoothly with modernism. He holds on, preserves and passes on his culture to the generation after him. Despite the changes around him, he remains true to his culture and identity.
The plot of the story is by Lee Chung-joon about a family of three: a pansori singer called Youbong who is a father to two: an adopted son and daughter known as Dong-ho and Songwha respectively. They were poverty-ridden and tried to make a decent living in a modernized society (Kim & James, p.34). The three travel across the countryside seeking to improve their musical skill while at the same time preserving the culture in a rapidly changing society. It is different from other American road movies in that; they are looking for a home to relocate their families as opposed to escaping from their home.
Slowly, we see Youbong training his children on the ancient musical art. The daughter was trained to be a vocalist while the son was trained to be a drummer. At this time, the demand of performers like them went down due to the assimilation of the American culture. However, the son gave up and ran away from home due to the high poverty conditions back there. Later on, the sister got reunited with her brother who ran away.
The film is an illustration of the erosion of the ancient Korean Culture by the modernization that was taking place in the country. In the early 1990’s when the film was released, the popularity of local Korean films was declining at an alarming rate. The falling demand for the local films was based on the fact that, most individuals had access to local television programs, sports and fashion programs among others. As such, they viewed the local movies boring (Kim & James, p.41). The film is an epitome of society’s conflict between traditional practices and modernization. It further demonstrated how the adoption of a foreign culture would increase rural poverty by falling demand for the local products. Also, it depicts the existing disconnect between the modern way of doing things and traditional way. At the end of the movie, the brother and sister reunite but does not say how the two who were socialized differently finally merged their two views of modernity and traditionalism.
Sopyonje does not provide a solution to the cultural erosion in the country but reminds the viewers about their cultural identity to (or “intending to”) giving them a wake-up call that will cause action to revive the local Korean culture (Kim, p.135). The viewers are left with the choice of whether to entirely forget about their origin or integrate the local culture in their day to day lives. They are made to see the richness of their culture through the music performed in the film.
The popular film whose main subject was pansori was effective in awakening people’s curiosity in learning the traditional Korean art of singing. This created a booming story in the media who gave the term ‘Sopyonje Syndrome’. All people, young and old lined up to watch the movie. It seemed to have awakened a deep sense of belonging which was absent in many movies across the country.
The film is a depiction of the conflict between maintaining the local Korean culture in modern society. Through the use of flashback, it gives a chance for the viewers to have a look at the past and current situations. It shows the dramatic change of the Korean culture into a modern one. Most of the Koreans who got an opportunity to watch the film expressed that, no other film on screen had demonstrated such native culture (Kim, p.141). Youbong surrounded by modernity made efforts to remind his family of their origin through ‘pansori’ and pointed out that identity gets lost as people consciously pursue the present by moving with the current trends. The story mirrors the happenings of the Korean society who warmly embrace modernization from the West. It demonstrates the rush towards adopting a new culture and way of doing things through interaction with foreigners. These actions resulted in the adoption of new socioeconomic practices and customs from the westernized nations. As a result, there’s a high risk of losing touch with the traditional customs that give South Korea its identity.
The film uses the powerful musical Korean art known as ‘pansori’ with a rich sense of taste that leaves viewers moved into the happenings of the act. It had its emotional highs for instance when Songhwa desperately grieved over her loss and drove it to master the art to ensure that at least she’s left with that. At the end of the film, “han” is mentioned which a word that describes the deep sorrow is stemming from consequential loss and helplessness. Youbong and his children express the grief and sorrow since the family had made many sacrifices for the sake of the art but did not earn as much (Kim, p.145). To them, life was harsh and had mistreated them to the lowest point. The term “han” is used in most of Korea’s stories especially those whose main subject is a loss, sadness, and separation. The film makes “han” an easily accessible concept through the entire story which mirrors the real happenings in Korea. The film captures low life moments experienced by the three actors when they lost their jobs due to falling demand in the local music. The film further explained the happenings in Korea as people abandoned their culture and excitedly embraced a new one. Despite the sadness, they find momentary peace together singing “Arirang”.
Sopyonje captures the attention of most people due to its nature of production. The direction by Im was quite captivating combined with the high skilled acting performances and musical abilities. The film capture the true story of the Korean people and the current occurrences at the time the story was told (Kim, p.148). Over twenty years have passed now since the release of the movie, and a lot has changed since then that the film does not or hardly look like the current world. Despite it being more than a decade old, the film still maintains its relevance as from that time of its production and release. The film demonstrates that, as Korea progresses on into the future, it will still experience some losses which it has to bear with since life is quite dynamic. Further, losses are inevitable, and no amount of hard work or sacrifice could prevent it from occurring. It is well represented by the concept of the “han” as acted by the family in the story. The film is one of its kinds which give a clearer understanding into the past Korean culture. The Korean viewers have now found an opportunity to restore the Korean culture.

Work Cited

Kim, Kyung Hyun. The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, (2004): pp.134-156
Kim, Kyung Hyun and David E James. Im Kwon-Taek. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, (2002): pp 19-45

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Understanding the Korean Culture Through Film “Sopyonje”. (2022, Feb 21). Retrieved from https://essaylab.com/essays/understanding-the-korean-culture-through-film-sopyonje

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