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Interweaving Korean Film and Performance: A Conversation with Korean Filmmaker and Performance Director Kim Tae-yong

Crossroads of Youth (1934)

Crossroads of Youth (1934, discovered in 2007)

By Areum Jeong.

Korean filmmaker Kim Tae-yong made his directorial debut in 1999 with Memento Mori (directed with Min Kyu-dong), the second installment of the girls’ high school horror film series. The film was hailed as one of the most beautiful horror films in Korean cinema and received Best New Director at the Baeksang Arts Awards. His next feature film, Family Ties (2006), was acclaimed for its alternative representation Korean families. The film was screened internationally and received several awards, including the Golden Alexander for Best Feature Film at Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the Lotus Jury Prize at the Deauville Asian Film Festival, Best Director at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and Busan Film Critics Awards, and Best Film at the Grand Bell Awards and Korean Association of Film Critics Awards. Late Autumn (2010), starring Chinese actress Tang Wei and set in Seattle, is a remake of Lee Man-hee’s 1966 film of the same title. The film was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and received Best Film at the Busan Film Critics Awards. In addition to directing documentaries and a variety of short and experimental films, Kim has been active in performance, directing several projects that merge Korean classics and performative elements.

When Ahn Jong-hwa’s 1934 film Crossroads of Youth was discovered in 2007, the Korean Film Archive restored it for screening and Kim directed a film-narrating performance in 2008. Since then, the Crossroads of Youth has been screened at several film festivals both domestic and abroad, including the New York Film Festival in 2009 and the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013.

I viewed the Crossroads of Youth on several occasions in Seoul. Although the film might be the same, each film-narrating performances is different. The narrator, Cho Hei-bong, follows a script, but ad-libs, and occasionally changes it to reflect current events. For example, in 2008, the narrator mentioned politics in light of Korean protests against the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

At the left front nook of the auditorium, a small orchestra, consisting of an accordion, a double bass, a keyboard, and a violin, accompanied the narration. At stage right were a chair and a small wooden desk, with a lamp, a small pitcher, and a cup.

Not only did Kim and film narrator reenact the film narration, but interior of the theater lobby was also decorated to evoke a 1930s movie theater. In a nook in the lobby, a small salon was set up. Antique chairs, lamps, and tables replicated a bygone era. The employees were dressed in the fashions of the 1930s. The female employees in the ticket booth wore traditional dresses and the male employees selling rice cakes wore period Western attire. The design and fonts of the flyers created for the performance also reflected the period.

The plot of Crossroads of Youth takes place in Seoul, 1934. Yeong-bok, a Korean male in his twenties, leaves his hometown and family and begins working at the train station in Seoul. When he meets Yeong-hei, who works at a gas station nearby, he falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Yeong-bok’s sister Yeong-ok comes to Seoul to tell her brother that their mother has passed away. Upon failing to find her brother, she takes a job at a café. One day, Myeong-gu and his friend Gae-cheol visit the café where Yeong-ok works. Gae-cheol seduces and rapes Yeong-ok. Having nowhere to go, Yeong-ok stays at Gae-cheol’s place. Meanwhile, Yeong-hei loses her job at the gas station. Her path crosses Gae-cheol’s, but she escapes him before he rapes her. Yeong-bok hears of his beloved’s plight and goes to Gae-cheol’s house. He is reunited with his sister Yeong-ok avenges her. In the end, Yeong-bok marries Yeong-hei and the couple starts a new life.

The film uses a love story to subtly convey a larger message about society. While Yeong-bok, Yeong-ok, and Yeong-hei represent colonized Korean subjects, both Myeong-gu and Gae-cheol represent Japanese colonizers or pro-Japanese Koreans. The film’s conclusion with Yeong-bok’s victory might imply a wish for Korea’s independence.

The plot itself is nothing earth shattering, but the film’s images of Seoul in the 1930s, capture the viewer’s attention. When viewing the road on which both cars and wagons travel and the newly built Seoul station in flickering black-and-white images, I almost mistook the film for a fake documentary; it felt surreal in the sense that I was viewing Seoul under Japanese colonial rule. Such details enable each viewer to experience Seoul in the 1930s.

In 2017, Kim collaborated with the National Gugak Center and directed Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels, a performance that interweaves folklore, traditional dance, gugak (traditional Korean music), and film. The story is about two mischievous children who stumble into the underworld and four Kokdus—traditional wooden figurines that guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife —who are the children’s protectors. Because the entire cast of actors, dancers, and musicians were unable to travel abroad, the performance was filmed and shown at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival, 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, and the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

In addition, Kim has been collaborating with Muju Film Festival since 2016 and created performances that merge film and theater every year. He has directed screenings of Korean classics and incorporated Korean pansori, contemporary electronic music, reggae, and hip-hop.

On January 27, 2020, I interviewed Tae-yong Kim to discuss his recent work interweaving Korean classics and performance. The interview was conducted in Korean.

How did you begin weaving Korean classics into performance?

Film Narrator 2The print of Crossroads of Youth was discovered in 2007. It is the oldest surviving print in Korea and the only film from Korea’s silent film period. That was the beginning of all of this. The Korean Film Archive (KOFA) and I decided to recreate the past when screening the film. At the same time, we wanted to recreate it in a modern way that the audience could relate to.

Film narrators were necessary for the audience because the earliest films were imported. Because most Koreans had little exposure to other cultures, the film narrator was essential in explaining the film to the audience. Being a cultural interpreter was so important to the audience that often, audience members would make the choice as to which film narrator to see rather than what film to see.

After conducting research and listening to the records from that time, we learned that each Korean film narrator during the silent film period had a distinctive style. For example, Kim Young-han, a well-known film narrator, would not deliver narrations in a dramatic tone; he would just narrate the film as if talking to a friend. In a way, these film narrators are having a conversation with the audience via film. Many of the dramatic tones that Koreans are familiar with emerged after liberation from Japan, from the melodramas or national theatre. However, we decided to create something that people can identify with so added some dramatic tones. Our team composed music that seemed both old-fashioned and modern.

It was such an interesting process, reinterpreting and performing a Korean classic in a modern way. I wanted to be involved with more projects like this. And then, in 2016, I received a request from Muju Film Festival to create something similar for its opening ceremony. That year, we screened Shin Sang-ok’s 1961 film Seong Chunhyang and interwove Korean pansori and contemporary electronic music during the screening. Every year since then, I have been reinterpreting Korean classics by incorporating performative elements for Muju Film Festival’s opening ceremony. In 2017, we made Reggae Inna Film by adding reggae to the 1967 stop-motion animation Heungbu and Nolbu; in 2018, we reinterpreted Shin Sang-ok’s 1972 film Shim Cheong; last year we made Hip Hop Reboot by taking the 1985 film Bulgasari, which was directed by Shin Sang-ok and Jeong Geon-jo and adding hip-hop.

Can you talk more about the process?

Creating the Crossroads of Youth was very difficult. We did not know what the story was. We could not even tell if the characters were family or friends. So we viewed the film hundreds of times and even tried to read the actors’ lips. We also did research and looked up newspapers from that time. Finally, the film narrator and I wrote the script together. It was a very difficult project, but I also had a lot of fun.

For the performances we made for Muju Film Festival we had the stories so we did not have to write the script. Instead, I would watch the film and listen to the music in the film for hours and think about what kind of musicians to collaborate with. For example, Heungbu and Nolbu is a really fun animation so I thought reggae would be a good fit. Making decisions on what film and which musician to collaborate with is pretty much the most important part of the process.

What was the audience reception in Korea and beyond?

The Crossroads of Youth was well received in Korea and when we had performances in Japan, Germany, and the U.S., the foreign audiences really enjoyed it. I was not sure whether or not something would get lost in the translated subtitles. But even if the subtitles do not deliver everything 100%, I think it still did a satisfactory job of telling the story because the Korean and foreign audiences laughed at the same points. Or perhaps it was the film narrating performance format that appealed to them.

Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels also did very well—each performance was completely sold out and the National Gugak Center had never seen ticket sales like that. Normally, people who go to the Center are really interested in gukak, but for Kokdu, all kinds of audiences came, even if they had never attended a gukak performance before. Kokdu was also performed at the Lincoln Center last year.

Can you tell us about your future plans?

My next feature film, Wonderland, will start shooting next month. Chunhyang is currently in discussion for an international performance. I am also planning new projects with the Muju Film Festival and the National Gugak Center. I would like to continue making live events based on Korean classics. It is a different process from filmmaking.

Areum Jeong is Assistant Professor in Humanities at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from UCLA and her work takes a transnational approach to Korean film, literature, theater and performance.

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