South Korean Film Scores and Ease of Consumption – Part 3 (Seopyeonje’s P’ansori and Soo-Chul Kim).

Part 1. Part 2.

The Music of Soo-Chul Kim and the P’ansori aesthetic.

Soo-Chul Kim is the composer of the nondiegetic score for Seopyeonje, though it is unclear how much influence he had on the other musical aspects of the film.  Looking at the film’s score, it can at first seem quite sparse once the diegetic P’ansori music is ignored.  Soo-Chul Kim’s music recurs throughout the film, often in moments of realisation for the characters where music has brought them to a new, personal enlightenment.  His score is therefore worth discussing for a number of reasons.

“Not surprisingly, the Korean experience is his major theme, and some Korean critics wax mystical in relating his films to such concepts as han (endemic Korean grief/resentment) and hyo (the Confucian code of respect to parents and ancestors).” states Rayns (2012, p.42).  The issues of the both the film and the P’ansori raised around the concept of Han is to be largely avoided in this essay other than to state that its “Korean-ness” only adds to the arguments presented here.  The reasons for this can be summed up by Willoubgy who suggests that “Bearing in mind that tropes such as han elude explicit definition, and that this elusiveness is, in part, what lends it such a profound efficacy…” (2000, p.18). Willoubgy on the other hand does use the han for her analysis arguing that “As in the movie Sop’yonje, one can hear harsh sound qualities throughout any given p’ansori performance, but, not surprisingly, it is in the sections of lamentation or distress when the sound is most pronounced. Although these characteristically harsh timbres serve to emphasize a sense of han, it is only through a total musical experience that any emotion can be fully communicated.” (2000, p.22).

The score uses electronic patches of traditional instruments to produce a formally typical but still distinctly Asian sounding music.  There are strings that hint ever so slightly of more European tendencies but before this ever has time to affirm itself, the sounds of some form of Korean flute, with its microtone trills and descends, makes sure that it is still a highly Korean product.  “Also, the use of P’ansori music throughout the film’s soundtrack disorientates audience’s expectations of a melodrama that is normally structured on Western classical overtures.” states Kim, though because of the unclear delineation between diegetic and nondiegetic, this statement is only half right (Kim, 2004, p.61).

This aesthetic choice could of course be explained by the P’ansori’s emphasis on lyrical storytelling with Im perhaps wanting to avoid any clashes between the diegetic soundworld and the nondiegetic sublimation of lyrics outside of the soundworld.  Trying to imagine the scored scenes with music of a P’ansori variety instantly reveals the clashes and chaos that would ensue if this was changed.

There are however a number of examples where the diegetic P’ansori is used as a montage suture, though this often starts out from a very obvious visual cue and only evolves in the diegesis for aesthetic rather the cultural reasons.  This same logic can be applied to the final P’ansori performance scene.  The brother and the sister are reunited, though only the brother knows it.  They perform the P’ansori together but become increasingly, emotionally affected by it.  The sound of the P’ansori gradually fades out and is instead replaced with Kim’s score which adds to the emotional intensity of the scene.

One reading, especially in relation to cultural consumption, could be that the mixed technologies of the score that replace the P’ansori is highly metaphorical and speaks of the cultural demise of South Korean tradition.  This is however, a very uneven reading and the scene leans far more towards a more formal sound technique found in cinemas of all countries rather than a metaphorical attack on the acceptance of the cultural demise.  It speaks more of the protection of nationhood similar to Befu’s argument that “Whether expressed symbolically or discursively, in most cases of nationalism – aside from the separatist and pan-nationalist categories – there is consensus that the nation is sacred and its integrity to be protected, that the nation has territorial integrity and certain “sacred” cultural contents must be defended.” (Befu, 1993, p.3).

Western Acknowledgment Of South Korean Film, Asia Extreme And Its Musical Choices.

“When imposed from the outside (as a force of globalization or cultural imperialism), they appear hegemonic mainly because their promotion is intricately tied to an industry or a regime of institutional practices.” (Chun, 2012, p.504).

Though Seopyeonje seems to be the perfect example to discuss with the issues of distribution, consumption and a global, cultural evolution, there is also another reason for choosing it to represent the main bulk of the argument.  It displays all sorts of different influences and traditions making it ripe for analysis but, rather aptly, it also manages to predict and comment on the future film music traditions of South Korean cinema.

This is of course only reflective and done so within its narrative constructs but the characters in Seopyeonje could equally be discussing the rise of more Western methods of film music when actually discussing the future of the P’ansori.  While performing in the street alongside their friend who is a traditional calligrapher, the musician’s small audience is all of sudden stolen away by another group of musicians marching along the street.  The significance is that they are playing typically European instruments such as the accordion and the songs sounding typically, if only generally, Western.

The characters liken the musical choice to “prostitution” shortly after dismaying that “there’s no future for the P’ansori” because of the “Yankee pop song.”  Im Kwon-Taek was not to know the direction that South Korean cinema would take, especially in its more popular echelons, yet the character’s in Seopyeonje reflect on an attitude that has been adapted into modern, South Korean film score choices; an apparent “prostitution” aimed at facilitating and easing global distribution and consumption.

Adam Scovell

Part 4.

5 thoughts on “South Korean Film Scores and Ease of Consumption – Part 3 (Seopyeonje’s P’ansori and Soo-Chul Kim).

  1. Interesting. I’m a big fan of South Korean cinema but I can’t say that I’ve always paid attention the scores. The music in Tale of Two Sisters is fantastic – that one I did notice.

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