Sopyonjae: The Accumulation and Resolution of Han

My review of Sopyonjae appears in this month’s edition of 미르 (Mirror), the magazine published by The National Theater of Korea. You can see a digital copy in Korean, here (see page 52).

Evoking the iconic scene from Im Kwon-taek’s original 1993 film, The National Changgeuk Company’s Sopyonjae opens with the itinerant pansori singer Yubong wandering down a winding mountain road with his children, together singing Jindo Arirang – one of the most recognizable of Korean folk songs. In the film this is achieved in one take, an exquisitely long shot that illustrates the bleak plight of this footsore family who survive on little more than their music and the charity of strangers. Perhaps in an underestimation of the patience of a live audience, this moment seems to pass all too briefly on stage, a missed opportunity to evoke the despair that the young Songwha and her brother Dongho feel at the mercy of their father’s wanderlust and relentless pursuit of perfection. Well crafted, yet ultimately safe, the opening serves as a signpost for the direction that Yoon Hojin has taken the work in its second season.

The epic and horrific story is well known both in Korea and abroad: an abusive father is driven almost to the point of madness in his bid to mould his children in his image. The film serves as an allegory for a Korea shrugging off the stifling dual nightmares of war and occupation in an increasingly modern world. In Kim Myeonghwa’s stage adaptation however, this context is overshadowed by the interweaving of the narrative with that of Shimchongga – the epic tale of blind Mr. Shim who’s sight is finally restored due to the selfless actions of his pious and filial daughter.

The poetry of this combination is at times completely overwhelming, and although the work doesn’t tackle this in a theatrically risky manner, performatively, nothing could be further from the truth. The virtuosity of the actors is put to the test in what is at times a torrent of emotion. Romantic nostalgia slams up against frantic confrontation, and perfectly timed comedy dissolves deep anguish in a split second with not much room for left for subtlety to smooth the transitions. Youthful chemistry flows naturally between Min Eunkyeong and Kim Junsu as the young siblings, and is only obstructed by the lurking presence of the ever-critical Yubong – played on alternative days by brothers Wang Gicheol and Wang Giseok. The men are well matched in skill, with the former’s hard-edged persistence countered by the latter’s slightly warmer and more volatile portrayal.

The double-casting of the adult roles may only be of note to those seeing the work multiple times, but the breadth in interpretation brought by each actor ensures a unique, if not consistent experience for audiences across the season. In the second act, Kim Mijin’s adult Songhwa is bird-like and fragile where Lee Soyeon’s is melodic and fiery. Dongho’s sorrow at losing his sister is boiling under the surface of Im Hyeonbin’s fully embodied characterisation, whereas Lee Gwangbok delivers a steely, determined performance and a voice that is surprisingly powerful and mature. Finally, on days where the audience misses the inimitable mastery of Ahn Sook Sun as the middle-aged Songhwa, they instead are witness to Kim Geummi’s rich, grounded take on the show’s breathtaking finale.

Sopyonjae’s scenic design is stunning in its ascetic minimalism, with terraces of linen-lined mountain ridges providing both height and depth to the staging, and a surface for the projection of animated scenery by Jeong Jaejin. If a Korean landscape in watercolour and ink could dance, then this is what it would look like, with oceans melting into fields of azaleas, and the fiery reds of autumn giving way to the inevitable bleakness of winter. Employing this solution for the entirety of the production however leaves the stage almost constantly bathed in light, leaving little room for the lighting design to focus the action, washing away the potential for striking moments of intimacy and drama.

Thematically, the work is not without its problems, and has been left open to the same kinds of criticism levelled at the film. Chief among these is that the patriarchal abuse suffered by Songhwa has been justified by the need for her to accumulate han – that ubiquitous and almost mythical quality of grief, longing, and remorse tied to the historical memory of all Koreans – in order to truly sing pansori. The problematic key to Songhwa’s emancipation is that only through submitting to her father in a final act of forgiveness is she able to resolve her han, regain ownership over her own body, and master her sound.

All of this is not to say however that Sopyonjae is not a success. Having seen the production almost twenty times in my capacity as a resident, but mostly observant, artist with the company, there are still moments which never fail to bring tears to my eyes. These tears of joy and sorrow are surely evidence of the work’s power to make tangible the cycle of the accumulation and resolution of han, and the almost unique ability of Korean culture to give words to what is essentially a universal experience.

Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowships are an initiative of Brisbane City Council. This project is supported by Asialink and Arts Queensland.

sopyonje, 서편재

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