When a film is described as a genuine Classic of Korean cinema, there’s a certain wariness about writing a review without being caught up and overwhelmed by the accolades heaped upon it previously.
It’s fortunate then that I didn’t come across those comments until after seeing the film, so my expectations were along the lines of the usual Korean drama with the standard allotment of pathos and melodrama. Opening the review with the adjective of classic, it would come as no surprise that Sopyonje is anything but standard. While perhaps lacking the cultural context to feel the real heartbreak that is visible from a distanced viewpoint, I’ve still read enough history to read maybe too much into some of the metaphors that director Im Kwon Taek has layered into Sopyonje. Nonetheless, it’s surprising how engrossing the film is and, if nothing else, the appreciation you develop of the indigenous Korean art of Pansori, an operatic storytelling.
Being centred around a family troupe of Pansori players (which do not have any actual blood relation), Sopyonje follows the lives of the two children, in flashback, as they grow up under the auspice of their father, an itinerant Pansori performer. Being a fanatic, their father, Yubong, trains his daughter Songhwa and son Dongho in the art, and follows as they subsist by performing when and where they can, in a changing world no longer appreciative of the old ways. Dongho finally gets sick of the poverty and leaves for Seoul, and hence the film begins with his retracing his sister’s and father’s footsteps since he left.
Sopyonje lilts through its narrative, existing predominantly in flashback as Dongho attempts to reunite with his sister. Against expectations, the melodrama is minimal, with a death in the beginning establishing Dongho’s relationship with his father, but otherwise the character conflict is virtually nonexistant beyond Dongho’s decision to up and leave. And while Dongho drives the plot along, the film centres more upon the relationship between father and daughter, what they do, and the passion they feel to keep their art alive.
The beauty of the film lies in its presentation of Pansori. Its rhythm and longing lies at the heart of the pacing and thematics of the narrative. While mainly composed of long dirges embodying pathos and regret, there are moments of staccatic poetics that punctuate the performance. The joy that exists is heartfelt, yet transitory, before the requiem continues.