Pansori Campaign – two films in late October and early November 2012

*Thursday 24 January 2013 update*

There is a Pansori performance on Saturday 26 January 2013 at the Cadogan Hall in London as part of on evening (starting at 19:30, ending about 21:30) to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Korean Cultural Centre (KCC) in London.

Venue: Cadogan Hall,5 Sloane Terrace, London SW1X 9DQ (very near Sloane Square Underground Station)
Free Entry with RSVP by email:
or phone 020 7004 2600

This is naturally very highly recommended by me, and if you are intrigued but uncertain the even better news is that the event is free: you just need to register by sending an an email to the KCC.

I did that myself earlier today, and received a reply asking me to pick up my ticket at the KCC centre in London (just off Trafalgar Square) before 17:00 on Friday 25 January, or if I am unable to come to the KCC centre then email asking them to prepare tickets to be collected at the Cadogan Hall box office from 18:00 on Saturday.

So if you’re interested in going then I suggest that in your email to the KCC you say that in view of the time factor you would like if possible to pick up your ticket at the Cadogan Hall on Saturday evening.

More information on this evening at:


* Korean Cultural Centre UK

For more information on Pansori:

* try the interview with Brian McMaster (a former director of the Edinburgh International Festival)

* a post on this site which also has some links

* a more eccentric post on this site which also has some links

*31 October 2012 update to the original post of 17 October 2012*

There’s a screening of Sopyonje at the BFI Southbank at 20:45 on Friday 2 November 2012.

I very much recommend this film, for the reasons given below. I just want to reiterate:

* it’s one of the five or so films that mean most to me;

* it’s very emotionally powerful

* and without giving away its ending, that ending is simultaneously stark and bleak and optimistic, which is very hard to do. (The only other work of art which I can think of which does this is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 9th Symphony.)

* And whilst in some ways the film is an allegory about the struggles of the Korean nation, it can also be seen as a story of artists struggling to do what is good and right, against commercial and other pressures not to do that.

*Original Post of 17 October 2012*

One of my main aims in life is to interest as many people as possible in the Korean art form of Pansori, a form of storytelling with two performers: the storyteller, who uses both speech and song (a very rough approximation for the sound of the song is Flamenco or Blues), with a fan occasionally used for emphasis; and a drummer, who apart from the important role of helping provide an immense momentum to the performance (even at quite slow tempos) occasionally shouts encouragement to the storyteller.

In particular, I think performers in any art form and anyone interested in performance should experience Pansori at least once: I have seen five full Pansori performances, some filmed extracts from performances, and a few Korean productions which were not Pansori, but which used Pansori as an important part of the show. From which I confidently deduce:
1. I seem to have always (so far) seen good Pansori performers.
2. Compared with other art forms a good Pansori performer is a very very good performer.

In late October and early November 2012 there are two films screeing in London which are very good films in themselves and which have Pansori as a very important component: they are in the Im Kwon-taek film season at the BFI Southbank and ICA.

* “Chunhyang” is – I think – a good introduction to Pansori (it was my first experience of Pansori). It starts with a few minutes of a filmed live Pansori performance in a theatre, then starts cutting between that live Pansori performance and a film of the story being told. This works very well as a framing device, and means that for those unfamiliar with Pansori you have the film to help you understand what’s happening.

* “Sopyonje” (or “Seopyonje”) is one of the five films that mean most to me: it is very powerful emotionally, and ends with an astonishing tracking shot which is stark and bleak and optimistic, all at the same time. “Sopyonje” has quite a bit of straight Pansori in it, but nowhere near the amount in “Chunhyang”. I’m sure “Sopyonje” works as a film if you haven’t experienced Pansori, but I think it will mean even more if you have previously experienced Pansori.

“Sopyonje” can be read in several ways – perhaps the most common is that it is a parable of the struggle of Korea, but I also see it as a parable of the struggle of an artist to achieve something really worthwhile in their art despite great hardship: in a way not really a parable, because in essence that is the plot of “Sopyonje”.

So, which film to see? Answer: preferably both, but if it can only be one then I suggest “Chunhyang” because that is the closest to seeing a live Pansori perfomance. (Which would be even better, but that *must* have surtitles or subtitles: experiencing Pansori for the first time, you really need to understand the story at each point in the performance.)

But if possible see both: I’ve said above that “Sopyonje” is very powerful emotionally, and for me it’s one of the greatest films ever made. And if you can see both, then if possible see “Chunhyang” first, so you get an understanding of what Pansori is about, which will very much add to your experience of “Sopyonje”.

Some links and details follow.

Chunhyang at ICA
Im Kwon-taek: Chunhyang + Q&A
Saturday 27/10/2012 at 18:00pm in ICA Cinema 1
Dir. Im Kwon-taek, South Korea, 2000. 134 mins. Korean with English subtitles.

Based on the Pansori folk song of the same title, Chunhyang tells the tale of two-star crossed lovers, Mongryong, the son of a nobleman, and Chungyang, the daughter of a retired couretsan. Im Kwon-taek’s modern re-telling of this classic love story explores the harsh, often tragic realities of class differences in 18th century Korea.

Director Q&A: We are delighted to welcome the director Im Kwon-taek for a Q&A, following this screening.

Sopyonje at BFI Southbank
Sopyonje (or Seopyeonje) at the BFI Southbank
Oct 24, 2012 6:20 PM
Nov 2, 2012 8:45 PM

Chunhyang at
… This particular adaptation, however, is not simply a retelling of the story; it is built around a pansori narration of the tale. Viewers who have seen Sopyonje will be familiar with the vocal art of pansori, a style of narrative song developed in Korea’s countryside. Whereas in Sopyonje viewers were introduced to the beauty of the singing, in Chunhyang the pansori is far more moving, because we follow the story’s narration together with the intense swells of the music. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of this film, that it gives us such access to a little-known but remarkable form of art. The film is structured as a ‘story within a concert’ where we move between shots of the performer and the story he narrates; and unlike many narratives of this kind, the ‘story’ and its ‘frame’ interact to create something greater than the sum of its parts. …

Sopyonje at
… The plot is deceptively simple. Based on a short story by Lee Chung-joon, Yu-bong (Kim Myung-gon) is a p’ansori master who travels with two adopted children, daughter Song-hwa (O Chang-hae), Yu-bong’s p’ansori apprentice, and son Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-chul), a drummer, the only instrument that accompanies p’ansori — unless you consider the singer’s occasional fluttering of a folding fan for emotional emphasis an instrument. The three troubadours travel throughout the countryside in efforts to perform and develop their artistry while trying to remain true to Yu-bong’s interpretation of what qualifies as real p’ansori. (Such traveling about brings Kyung Hyun Kim to label this film a “road movie.” However, rather than escaping from home as in American road movies, theses characters are in search of a home to relocate their families, their past, and their masculinity.) Spanning from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, we slowly see how the intrusion/appropriation of Japanese and American cultural traditions limit the opportunities for p’ansori to be performed, and thus, further developed. Hence, p’ansori basically represents the struggle to maintain an essential “Koreanness” within the rushing modernity. Many Koreans commented on how the film represented the purest portrayal of Han they had yet to see on screen. Han, as I repeat myself from my Mudang review that also addresses it, is a concept ever elusive to non-Korean viewers. To quote Chungmoo Choi, Han basically entails “the sentiment that one develops when one cannot or is not allowed to express feelings of oppression, alienation, or exploitation because one is trapped in an unequal power relationship.”

Brian McMaster (at the time director of the Edinburgh International Festival) on Pansori in 2003

Brian McMaster interview on Pansori
[An article from 2003: Brian McMaster (at the time director of the Edinburgh International Festival) talking about why he brought Pansori to the EIF – I was at all five performances: they were wonderful. I recommend the whole article]

In front of a painted screen, a singer and a drummer, both richly clad in silk, are engaged in a sort of three-way dialogue with each other and their rapt audience.

The singer switches between intensely dramatic narration and impassioned, heavily vibrato singing; her every nuance, gesticulation, expression – droll, knowing or tragic – is weighted. The drummer, under his stove-pipe hat, lets fly with intermittent yells of acknowledgement and encouragement , while his horizontal, barrel-shaped drum underpins mood and pace. A peremptory rap and the singer’s fan snaps open. Timing is everything – and in more than one way. These performances can last for five or six hours.

Welcome to pansori, an ancient Korean art that combines singing and storytelling. An epic folk opera with overtones of balladry, it makes formidable demands on its performers, the greatest of whom are sometimes compared to the Maria Callases of the western operatic world. Complete, classic pansori is rarely performed outside Korea, but this year’s Edinburgh International Festival audiences will have the rare chance to experience it for themselves.

The origins of pansori go back as far as the 14th century. Its name can be translated as “songs at a place of entertainment”, but it is much more than a song recital. As the five classic examples being performed in Edinburgh – by five of Korea’s leading singers – will demonstrate, the drama is carried by a combination of narrative, dialogue and singing, switching from knowing asides and vituperative gossip to the far-eastern equivalent of a grand-operatic aria.

The singer’s expressions and gestures play a vital part. Recounting popular epics of ill-starred romances, heroic battles or the vagaries of gods and demons is challenging enough, but to do it for six hours at a time is a considerable feat of stamina and memory.

If Markovits’s experience with Paris audiences is anything to go by, McMaster has nothing to worry about. “We had people who came every night and sat there for every different story,” she recalls of last year, when the Festival d’Automne mounted the first such recital outside Korea. “People are still talking about it. I don’t think we in the west have anything like pansori, anywhere. It’s the most incredible combination of opera and storytelling. The singers – the kwandae – seem to have incredible training in vocal techniques. There is, of course, a lot of ornamentation, but the voice is very characteristic to pansori and I can’t think of an equivalent anywhere else in Asia; the voice is coming from so many different parts of the body, complete breathing and complete control.”

There is a legend, she adds, that some great pansori singers were made to train near a waterfall in the mountains, and their singing had to compete with the roar of the waterfall. Similar tales, of course, abound about western singers practising with the taps running, but the waterfall, we agree, sounds much more romantic.

Markovits stresses the importance of what she calls “the triangular relationship between the singer, the gosu (drummer) and audience. “The percussionist, in a way, controls how the performance develops, giving the beat, and he is the one who punctuates the story and encourages the singer; then there is a degree of audience participation too, so the key to the success of this triangular relationship – at least outside Korea – is how we work the subtitles.”

As McMaster found, once you are engrossed in the story, time can pass surprisingly quickly. Also, says Markovits, “they can sometimes get so funny; it is so strong, and constantly changing in vocal techniques, and the story just takes you.” …


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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3 Responses to Pansori Campaign – two films in late October and early November 2012

  1. Anna Chen says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for explaining what Pansori is — and now I am intrigued. I can’t make Nov 2nd as I’m not in London at the mo, but I hope I get to see a performance.

  2. Elena says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve watched pansori performances on youtube and was facinated by how the performers weave between singing and narrating the story. Some of their folk songs give vibes of Korea’s Buddhist and shamanictic culture and are as powerful and emotional as pansori singing.

    This is a download link to a geomungo performance(by goo kyo im) with singing.

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