A famous South Korea’s director Im Kwon-taek usually amazes viewers with unbelievable plots and settings. His works are based on past Korea’s traditions and culture, however, set in the modern period of time. Lots of the movies of this director gain recognition both at home and abroad.
Im Kwon-taek and his works won different awards, including Cannes Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, and Grand Bell Awards. In 1993, he got Golden Goblet (Shanghai International Film Festival) for his extremely melodramatic story Sopyonje.
Sopyonje is a movie created by Im Kwon-taek in 1993. This movie is one of those that attract international attention to the Korean movie industry. It is a story about one pansori storyteller, Youbong, who never gives up and is not eager to change the world that is around him. Pansori is an old Korean art, folk music. In America, it may be slightly compared with blues. Unfortunately, this art has lost its recognition in the XX century.
In spite of the fact that lots of people advise an old storyteller to give up pansori and find a real job, he cannot leave this occupation and forget about his passion. He is extremely eager to provide this beautiful art of pansori all over the world; the world that will never care for pansori or even for Youbong.
One day, during his travel, Youbong meets two children: a girl and a boy. He decides to adopt them. Probably, one of the goals he wants to achieve is to find a person to whom it is possible to pass his knowledge about pansori. However, the methods he chooses are not really aesthetics. Youbong wants to blind his daughter, Songhwa. He thinks it is the only way to teach her pansori and to “teach about grief” (Sopyonje) .
Such way of studying presented by Im Kwon-taek causes lots of misunderstandings and critiques. Several feminist critics have blamed Im for neglecting humanist themes.
Chungmoo Choi argues that “Yu-bong’s violent act against Song-hwa is irreparable since concealed beneath the facade of national(ist) aesthetics is Yu-bong’s sexual desire.” (Kim, 63)
Without any doubts, Sopyonje is one of the greatest masterpieces of Korean film industry. However, the idea of male violence against women is present and causes lots of misunderstandings. It is not aesthetically beautiful to blind a person in order to teach something. If a girl is a talented person, a wise teacher can find some other ways to share his knowledge. This is why I cannot but agree with the ideas offered by Chungmoo Choi.
Youbong obsession to train just a perfect pansori storyteller makes him blind as well.
The story happens around 1960-1970s. These were the times when Korea became free from Japanese colonization. Modernization was one of the peculiar features of those times. It is not surprising that the art of pansori was slowly pushed into the shadows.
Usually, people have nothing to do but accept all changes and try to be up to dates. Youbong is one of those conservatives who are willing to save old traditions at any price. Unfortunately, not all methods can be appropriate. In this case, the idea to make a girl blind was really extreme. To my mind, his behaviour is a good example of human weakness.
Some people may understand Youbong and even justify his actions. He is in despair. His son, Dongho, runs away after he gets to know that it is obligatory to be blinded to grasp the essence of pansori. His daughter has no desire to sing and devote all her life to the art of pansori any more. All cherished dreams of Youbong may be failed. The art of pansori may die with him and be forgotten. He has nothing to do but feed his daughter a drug and make her blind forever.
However, is it correct that a man can decide either make or break someone’s life? Even if it is his daughter, no one can play God. On my opinion, a good father and a real expert on pansori should never allow one’s emotions control the situation.
There are so many ways to find other approaches and teach. Songhwa is really eager to learn more about pansori art. She cherishes a dream to become a pansori master. But she does not know how much such teaching will cost for her. Can it be that passion to pansori has already made its admires blind?
Sopyonje is a real treasure in modern Korean cinema. Im’s movies are always captivating to watch. Delight music, calm atmosphere, slowness, and beauty – all the techniques that make the film Sopyonje interesting to lots of viewers. Without watching the film and listening to the music presented there, it is difficult to understand all pansori’s beauty.
Sorry to say, but the unjustified action of Youbong, his obsession, and the choice of wrong way make lots of viewers blind as well. So, for me, it is impossible to find excuses of his actions.
Sopyonje. Dir. Im Know-taek. Perf.Myung-gon Kim, Jung-hae Oh, and Kyu-chul Kim. Taehung Pictures. 1993
Kim K.H. “The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema.”, Duke University Press, 2004