Sopyonje (1993) Movie Review

What makes “Sopyonje” stand out is its unflinching look and interpretation of a Korea under assault — not assault from foreign attacks or invaders, but from something just as deadly: cultural imperialism. It is impossible to gauge the low-level intensity of the acting, the directing, and the progress of the story narrative and not realize that “Sopyonje” is a gem.

The world of “Sopyonje” is set sometime around the 1960s or 1970s; there are flashbacks to the 1940s, just as Korea was emerging from Japanese colonization and after the end of World War II. We follow the life of Youbong, a pansori singer and his two adopted children, Dong-ho and Songwha.

(Pansori, for those who don’t know, is a kind of Korean folk music, much like blues or blue grass in America. It is distinctively Korean, and has lost favor in the 20th century with the coming of modernization. The voluntary lost of pansori also marks the passing of traditional Korean culture.)

Youbong is the kind of man who doesn’t give up easily and refuses to change along with the world around him. If he was smart, many people advise him, he would give up the notion of continuing with pansori and find “a real occupation”.

True to his nature, Youbong is unwilling to allow pansori to flee his life, and thus struggles to maintain it even as overwhelming odds close in on him. He makes a meager living at the profession, providing an art to a country that no longer cares for it — or for him.

Even as modernization slowly but surely pushes pansori (along with the Korean that once embraced it) into the shadows, Youbong holds steadfast, certain in his beliefs. So obsessed with training the perfect pansori singer that Youbong is willing to blind his daughter in order to “teach her about grief”, all the more to strengthen her ability to convey emotion. It’s a horrific act, to be sure, but hate for the man is simply not easy to come by.

At once sad, depressing, beautiful, and exhilarating in its embrace of a dying art, “Sopyonje” is a masterful work. The daughter’s singing continues to haunt me to this day.

I cannot recommend “Sopyonje” enough. It is a treasure of modern cinema, but unfortunately like the movie’s topic, the film has faded into history. It’s impossible to locate a DVD or VHS copy anywhere, and I would be grateful if someone out there could point me in the right direction.

Kwon-taek Im (director)
CAST: Kyu-chul Kim …. Dong-ho
Myung-gon Kim …. Youbong
Jung-hae Oh …. Songhwa

Buy Sopyonje on DVD