Monday, November 7, 2016

It's a Korean Thing, You Wouldn't Understand; or, The Master's Tools


Cecily. I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Someday I should write a serious discussion of the Korean director Im Kwon-Taek's 1993 classic Sopyonje, but for now I'm interested in the way critics and audiences have tried to situate it as a Korean film - or as not-a-Korean film.  In doing so, I have to give away the ending, because it has been one of the most discussed aspects of the film.  So if you've put off watching Sopyonje for twenty years but want everything to be a surprise, stop reading now.  (The entire film, with English subtitles, appears to be on YouTube.)

Sopyonje, made on a small budget by a commercial director as a personal project (but also to cope with the "quota" system on Korean movies at the time), was enormously and unexpectedly successful, on the international film-festival circuit but especially in Korea. Without any promotion at first, it opened on one screen but quickly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon.  The soundtrack CD was a hit, and the film was credited with sparking a revival of interest in p'ansori.  A book (in Korean) on the making and significance of the film, edited by Im and released a few months after its release, was also successful.  It did not break through as an art-house success outside Korea, though it got a lot of critical attention.

Sopyonje mostly takes part during the colonial period (1900-1945), when Korea was under Japanese occupation.  It's the story of an itinerant singer and his two adopted children.  The singer is an exponent of p'ansori, an old Korean musical form, involving one singer who tells a story to the accompaniment of one drum.  Partly because of Japanese cultural imperialism, which sought to wipe out Korean culture, and partly because of the Dread Pirate Modernity, which takes no prisoners, p'ansori and other traditional Korean arts are on the ropes.  (There's a funny scene where a little brass band walks through a village, trying to play Besame Mucho, a song which seems to have become popular in Korea over the years.)  Eventually the boy (the drummer) runs away, and the father feeds the girl singer a poisonous plant that renders her blind, both to keep her dependent and (he tells her) to make her a better artist by increasing her han, the supposedly essential Korean blend of bitterness and sorrow.  Years pass, the old man dies, and the two young people finally meet again in a small town.  They play together without acknowledging that they know each other, and separate again, probably forever.

It seems to me that a deliberately frustrating ending like this is no big deal, but numerous critics have felt it that it's a problem and have spent a fair amount of energy trying to figure out what it means.  In the collection Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, edited by David E. James and Kyung-Hyun Kim (Wayne State, 2002), no less than three of the papers devote space to the ending of Sopyonje.

In "Sopyonje and the Inner Domain of National Culture," Julian Stringer writes:
When we showed Sopyonje at Indiana University in the spring of 1996, the post-screening discussion raised an interesting problem of cross-cultural analysis ... [W]e -- most of whom were non-Koreans -- felt "cheated" by the film's climactic moment ... [158]

Halfway through the p'ansori recital in the reunion scene, there is a startling effect that indicates a curious stylistic decision.  Im chooses to shut off all diegetic sound, compelling his characters to be mute.  We see Song-hwa sing her song and we see Tong-ho bang his drum, but we no longer hear them.  A non-diegetic, "traditional" Korean piece -- performed on flute and synthesizer [!] -- is brought to the front of the mix, and the most climactic moment of this musical reunion is denied to the listening subject ... No wonder some of us felt cheated.  With all the fuss made up until now about the authenticity and beauty of p'ansori, why don't we get its full expression at this crucial juncture?

In short, what some of us felt at that screening in Bloomington in 1996 was that here is an example of a film not quite delivering all we had been led to expect from it.  Sure, we could rationalize our response, appreciate that there are perfectly good aesthetic reasons for blocking the soundtrack in this way.  Because we see the rapture of a blind woman experiencing an easing of her pain, doesn't the emphasis on sound manipulation approximate Song-hwa's own heightened sense of perception?  Yet we also couldn't help feeling that perhaps we just didn't "get it."  Given the narrative's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture, there seemed to be a level to Sopyonje that, as foreigners, we did not have access to.

This thought also came to me when I subsequently read some of the English-language critical reviews [160].
However, the "English-language critical reviews" Stringer goes on to quote are all by Korean critics, and none of them actually addresses the technical point that bothers him so much.  (I should perhaps mention that I wasn't at that screening, alas.  I might have heard about it from Korean friends, but I probably had to work.  I didn't see Sopyonje myself until it was released on DVD a decade later.  Nor, as far as I recall, have I ever met Julian Stringer.)

It seems to me that burying a diegetic (that is, within the film's world) performance under a non-diegetic (the viewer's perspective, unheard by the characters in the film) overdub is not unheard of in Western movies.  Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't express the character's inner world; it can be the filmmakers' comment on the action, or can be meant to manipulate the viewer.  To ascribe Im's decision to some mystic Korean cultural essence that "we, as foreigners, did not have access to" is to fall prey to the very Orientalism that post-colonial academics as supposed to avoid -- especially when it can hardly be a traditional Korean device, relying as it does on some pretty advanced technology.  (It happens that the diegetic performance in that scene was also a technological artifact: Stringer mentions later that the actress, though a p'ansori singer, didn't sing her part, which was overdubbed by another p'ansori singer.  The character's singing is in fact a composite of three different singers.)

Further, Stringer's remark about "the film's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture" overlooks the significance of the film's title.  "In pansori, there are Sopyonje and Dongpyonje," the critic Chung Sung-il writes in his monograph on Im (Korean Film Council, 2006).  "The former is the sound of the western side of Korea and the latter is the eastern."  Im was trying to recover not a national culture but a regional one, namely Im Kwon-taek's own.  Though Korea was a small country even before it was divided at the 38th parallel, it had numerous regional divisions that went back centuries and that persist to this day.  Chung writes, "Sopyonje isn't new in the perspective of aesthetics but it is the first film to declare IM's work in his sixties."

It seems to me that Stringer's reaction to his first viewing of Sopyonje was both naive and arrogant: if he didn't understand the reunion scene, it must have been because it involved some mystical Korean aesthetic which he, as a foreigner, could not have understood.  (I suspect that the "we" who "felt cheated" by it were really "I," Stringer himself.)  This is what is commonly called Orientalism, treating Asian cultures as radically, essentially Other from the "West," and each region as monolithically homogeneous.  It's also unlikely for numerous reasons.  Film is an international "language," developed in the twentieth century in numerous countries at the same time, and South Korean filmmakers (to say nothing of audiences) even of Im's generation were heavily influenced by Hollywood and European cinema.  There are different approaches to filmmaking and narrative, but they coexist within each country.  (See, for example, Robert Ray's How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies [Indiana, 2001], and Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media [Routledge, 1994/2013].)  Stringer concedes some of this, but he still tries to find a specifically Korean filmic syntax in the scene.

Ultimately, Stringer says, "I no longer feel disappointed [by the reunion scene]; rather I am impressed with how Im Kwon-Taek and his composer, Kim Su-ch'ol, have manipulated the soundtrack so as to suggest the presence of national thematics" (172).  He also concedes that "As a Western film student, my sensitivity to formal questions (as well as 'orientalist' fascinations?) may produce rupture where no rupture actually exists" (173), but still holds that "Such possible objections do not invalidate the interpretation of Sopyonje offered in this chapter" (174).  I disagree.

Now let's look at the Korean critics who contributed to this volume, and how they read Sopyonje's reunion scene.  In "Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning" the sociologist Cho Hae Joang quotes reactions to the Sopyonje phenomenon by numerous Koreans, ranging from students to other critics.  Cho claims that Korean "viewers seem to have easily accepted [the reunion] scene," quoting praise from the novelist Pak Won-so.  She also quotes Im himself: "The reason that they can't meet but can't bring themselves to reveal their identities is that they know all too well that neither can be of any help to the other in the future" (143).  "This," Cho comments,
is definitely a view of humanity that is far from the "Korean" way of thinking.  This "wordless parting" scene is an astonishingly new feature of South Korean movies, though it is found quite frequently in Italian and French art films.  Considering that not too long ago South Koreans wept copiously while watching the televised reunions of families separated during the Korean War, this final scene is not "Korean" at all [143].
This is a rather astonishing claim in its own right.  First, if the scene is so un-Korean, why did Korean audiences accept it so easily, as Cho says they did?  Second, it is one thing to weep at the reunions of real families separated by war and national division -- I see no reason to suppose that Americans wouldn't weep at such a spectacle, as I have myself when watching the televised reunions while in Korea -- and another to accept a different resolution for two fictional characters separated by the demands of art; one might very well weep at the scene anyway, because the two choose not to reunite.

Nor is it certain that all Koreans found the scene easy to accept.
In reply to a student who, during an invited lecture at Yonsei University in fall 1993, asked Im why he didn't allow the brother and sister to unburden their hearts in reunion, he said that his personal familiarity with the drifter's life had taught him that there were times when it was better for separated relatives not to meet [144].
Judging by the different individuals quoted by Cho, it seems likely to me that Korean audiences (like audiences everywhere) did not react to the reunion scene uniformly: some accepted it easily, some resisted.  Some probably overlooked it because they were more interested in other aspects of the film, such as its focus on traditional Korean culture and its usefulness as a spur to Korean cultural nationalism.  Im's answer to the student at Yonsei University indicates that he didn't see the scene has having universal applicability anyway: it was his opinion, based on his experience, that there are times when it is better for separated relatives not to meet -- which implies that there are times when it is better that they should meet.  Cho ascribes the protagonists' failure / refusal to reunite to Im's "modern and Buddhist perspective on life" (144), and on his "humanism," worldviews that are not exactly compatible.  Korean culture before modernity is a hybrid of "indigenous" elements, Buddhism, Confucianism; since Buddhism has been part of Korea for hundreds of years, it's hard to see how this perspective is "not 'Korean' at all."

Cho claims that "by focusing on aesthetic obsession and the drifter lifestyle ... the movie actually touch[es] the sensibilities of modern urbanites who feel that 'life is ultimately a sojourner's road and a lonesome journey'" (145).  Perhaps modern urbanites do feel this way, but neither aesthetic obsession nor the drifter's life are specifically modern phenomena.  Traditionalists love to imagine a past when everyone was settled, but Korea's history is pretty turbulent, and even if most Koreans stayed in one place throughout their lives, many did not.  Not that Cho is a traditionalist: she has a Ph.D. from UCLA and is a professor at a modern university in Korea.  As she recognizes, "The movement to revive traditional culture is really an indication of modernity and an effort to rescue oneself" (146).  And similar tensions exist in the West, including the US.  Which indicates that a film which focused on settled, stable peasants instead of drifters would also touch the sensibilities of modern urbanites who'd like to escape the unsettledness of their lives; in either case, American urbanites no less than Korean ones could have their sensibilities touched by it.  There's more to say about this, but I'll try to address it in other posts to come; for now I want to stick with the significance of Sopyonje's ending.

The third contribution to Im Kwon-Taek that focuses on Sopyonje is by Chungmoo Choi, an exponent of critical theory and an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine when this book was published.  In "The Politics of Gender, Aestheticism, and Cultural Nationalism in Sopyonje and The Genealogy," Choi summarizes the film's ending as follows:
In place of a melodramatic ending, the film depicts them performing together the Tale of Simch'ongi, a piece in the p'ansori repertory that Song-hwa has perfected. The two thus sublimate han.  The next day they set off in different directions, and we learn that Song-hwa has been raising a daughter [106].
Choi declares that Sopyonje "elicited a collective outpouring of han -- and an abundant flow of audiences' tears" (107), which undermines Cho's claim that weeping at real family reunions is somehow incompatible with weeping at a refused reunion in a fictional narrative.  But did Im reject melodrama in the ending of Sopyonje?  

Julian Stringer says that "the reunion scene is so effective partly because it represents the culmination of a narrative process that has built up themes of loyalty and desire and then resolved them in a satisfyingly melodramatic fashion" (165).  I think he's right here.  Renunciation is as melodramatic as reunion.  Think of a classic Hollywood weeper like Stella Dallas, which ends with Stella accepting her daughter's estrangement for the latter's own good.  If Song-hwa and Dong-ho going their separate ways inspired "an abundant flow of audiences' tears," Sopyonje fits comfortably into the category of melodrama, which is at least as popular in Korea (albeit disparaged) as it is in the West.

As a postcolonial theorist, Choi is deeply invested in opposing West and East, colonizer and colonized, "scientific rationality" and "non-articulative, aesthetic felicity."  I'm always bemused when Western-trained academics, using concepts and methods and citing authorities from the West, try to set up and perpetuate these binaries.  As Choi is aware, the modernizing, rationalizing changes that overcame Korea also overcame Western cultures, and are evaded and resisted here no less than there.  The past of rural traditional innocence is cast as the Good Other, menaced by the Bad Other of urban industrial rationalism.  (It's not clear in this formulation just who, or where, the Self is.)  Previous foreign impositions, like Confucianism, are brushed aside, though they had their own deleterious effects: Choi seems to blame the patriarchal violence in Sopyonje on colonialism, for example, though she must know better.  The father's sexual use of his adopted daughter has its counterpart in the pre-modern, non-Western, anticolonialist prophecies of Ezekiel; equating patriarchy, let alone violence, with modernity is a basic error that undermines the rest of Choi's argument.  But, again, more on this another time, I hope.

Cho Hae Joang thought that Im Kwon-taek's intention in the reunion scene was "un-Korean."  Since Im is Korean, Cho's essentialism is both misleading and harmful.  Im probably isn't a typical or "representative" Korean, but given Sopyonje's immense and unexpected popularity in Korea, being atypical is clearly no barrier to Koreanness.  But Koreans took away many different meanings and lessons from their viewing of the film.  Like any other nationality, Koreanness is a historical accident of birth, not a mystic essence inscribed in blood or, in the currently fashionable metaphor, DNA.  That doesn't mean that misunderstanding is only a failure to engage, of course: I can't apprehend the Korean language simply by adjusting my consciousness, I must put in time, study, and effort.  Nor am I saying that human nature is the same everywhere; there are numerous human natures within each culture.

I must confess my own naivete and arrogance in approaching Korean and other foreign media: it never occurred to me that I couldn't in principle understand them, that some Korean essence would render Korean film's meanings inaccessible to me.  That's not to say that I understood everything I saw without difficulty; of course not.  The Korean friends who introduced Korean films to me explained much of the historical and cultural background, some of which affected my understanding and some of which didn't.  The more I learned about Korean history and culture, the more Korean films and TV I watched, the better I understood.  My understanding will never be perfect, but as the widely varying reactions to Sopyonje by Koreans show, that would be just as true if I were Korean. (After all, I don't share or understand many of the values assumed in American media and art either. The current electoral campaign has brought home to me very forcefully that many of my fellow citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, might as well be from Uranus.)  I think that assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand a foreign artwork is like assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand someone's foreign accent: it's a refusal to understand, rather than an inability.  I believe that approaching a film or any other work with the attitude that understanding is possible is much more productive.

Here's another possibility, from Im Kwon-taek himself, quoted in Chung Sung-il's monograph:
However, if it was simply contemplating while giving up the past, Sopyonje couldn’t have gained so much attention from the public. I had to let the accumulated resentment and grudges from giving up oneself to surface in a bright way. I had to show the bright light of willing to win and overcome the past. When I say giving up, I don’t mean just the unfair and sad han. I meant it including the bright and joyful side as well. If Sopyonje only displayed despair from giving up, it wouldn’t have touched the hearts of so many people. I saw that in pansori. Pansori itself is lonely and sorrowful and it sounds like that too at first. However, if you put it in a motion picture and let your ears become familiar with it, the listener begins to accept it as a great form of song. Once you start to feel inspiration, you can feel humor and joy. I believe that’s what the public saw.
As I read this, one can see the ending of Sopyonje as a resolution of the story: Song-hwa and Dong-ho have been trapped by their painful past, but their meeting enables them to leave it behind and move into their respective futures.  (One reason for the tears of the "reunited" families Cho Hae Joang mentioned is that they aren't really reunited: they've been brought together briefly for a televised spectacle, but they will once again be separated, and have to return to their respective sides of the 38th parallel.  The national division leaves them frozen in the past; if reunification of North and South took place, they too would have to face the future.)  I don't know how many Koreans saw it that way, but it's a reasonable and helpful message to take from it.  A major problem of postcolonial critics like Choi Chungmoo is their assumption that colonized people have no agency: they are totally determined by the forces that rule their countries.  In reality, people not only resist those forces, they select which aspects and products of modernity and foreignness they will adopt, as their ancestors did with previous foreign imports.  This is a more hopeful approach to postcolonial theory; I think it has the added benefit of being true.