The biggest hit in South Korean B.O. history, this emotional tribute to Korean folk culture has been seen by almost a million people — and many are going back for seconds. Quality is tops on all counts, but content may prove too parochial for Western auds.
To recount the passing of a hearty southwest Korean music called pansori — a powerful storytelling form not unlike the most wailing blues — the pic offers the wanderings of Yu-Bong, an itinerant balladeer who takes suffering for his art all too seriously.
In compound flashbacks, we see Yu-Bong (played spectacularly by scripter Kim Myung-Kon) almost accidentally adopt two children on the road. He attempts to teach them the drum-and-voice music, already dying out in the 1950s, but eventually the boy, Dong-Ho (Kim Kyu-Chul), rebels against his master’s martinet ways. Brilliantly gifted “daughter” Song-Hwa (Oh Jung-Hae) sticks around for the full course, which includes going blind as she enters adulthood.
The plot is as downbeat as the tunes, but the film has a majestic undertow rare for tales about art, let alone about such an ephemeral one. Part of its sustained impact comes from the fact that the songs are delivered live (or appear to be) instead of the usual slick-but-deadening lip-syncs. Helmer Im Kwon-Taek takes heady risks along with his performers, most notably in a breathtaking nine-minute take in which the camera never moves but the singing “family” approaches it from a distance.
It’s a joyous, nervy moment, but life is no Yellow Brick Road for these ghostly remnants of an antique culture. Yu-Bong is a harsh stand-in for what’s been lost while the small peninsula has been trampled by one power after another; Song-Hwa is the suffering heart that has survived, and the sensitive Dong-Ho — whose recollections frame the story — may represent a new path (and a new kind of masculinity) for buffeted Koreans.
Whether that metaphorical, and deeply affecting, journey will touch others remains to be seen, but fest kudos and persistent marketing could make it the first tentative breakout of the dazzling Korean film renaissance.