Still image from Sopyonje: Courtesy of the Korean Film Archive
Im Kwon-taek is a towering figure in Korean cinema. He has over 100 films under his belt, and a career spanning almost sixty years. He’s taken home awards both at home and across the globe, and his works have earned respect in both commercial and art-house circles. For the uninitiated, however, this seemingly universal adoration can turn Director Im into an intimidating, monolithic figure. Where to start with a man who has done it all?
The answer is: with Sopyonje. If any of Director Im’s works can come close to encapsulating all that makes him an icon of Korean film, this is it. ‘Teaching the world about Korea by making movies’ is a mission statement frequently touted by Director Im, and with Sopyonje he taught a lesson in cultural history not just to the wider world, but to the people of Korea as well.
In Sopyonje, we follow a family of travelling folk musicians from town to town, as they maneuver their way through 1950s Korea’s changing cultural landscape, fighting a losing battle against encroaching western influences. The pressures of poverty take their toll upon the family’s patriarch Yu-bong, whose increasing dependence on alcohol drives a wedge between him and his children (and co-performers) Dong-ho and Song-hwa, forcing them into ever-harsher conditions.
Pansori, the traditional Korean folk music central to Sopyonje, has been described as ‘Korea’s opera’ in campaigns intent on promoting the art to a Western audience, but this inaccurate comparison doesn’t do justice to what is a unique and fascinating style of music. Pansori is a pared-down artform: just one drummer and one singer weave together a story that lasts for hours, and can encompass a full range of emotions, from light-hearted humour to intense sorrow. As an artform it fell out of favour in the early 20th century, in part due to suppression by the Japanese occupational powers. Sopyonje, focusing its story entirely around pansori performers, and including beautiful and lengthy scenes of the artform, is widely credited with sparking a revival in domestic interest in the traditional musical style, and with bringing it greater international awareness.
If Sopyonje is the start of your journey into the (seemingly endless) oeuvre of Im Kwon-taek, there’s no reason to stop here. The Korean Film Archive gives free access to over a dozen of his films, including Director Im’s debut Farewell to the Duman River (1962) and his breakthrough into arthouse cinema Mandala (1981). In keeping with our theme of confinement, I’d suggest starting with Festival (1996), released three years after Sopyonje and centering around a dysfunctional family who descend upon a small town for a funeral.
This online season of Korean Film Nights, Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement, has focused on the psychological impact of confinement as shown in Korean cinema. Sopyonje completes the season’s movement from the paranoia of the almost agoraphobic protagonists of 301/302, through to a family who may not be stuck in one place, but who are undoubtedly ‘trapped’ with one another. As we now look back on the intensity of March and April’s lockdown with a little hindsight and distance, we hope that these films have resonated with your experiences. Sopyonje serves as a reminder that leaving your home doesn’t mean leaving your problems, a hard truth if not a comforting fact!
You can watch Sopyonje (courtesy of the Korean Film Archive) with a recorded introduction from KFN programmer Thomas Flew in a specially created playlist on the KCCUK YouTube channel.