Image and Narrative
Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X



Editorial Board




Issue 10. The Visualization of the Subaltern in World Music. On Musical Contestation Strategies (Part 1)

Classifying Performances: The Art of Korean Film Narrators

Author: Roald H. Maliangkay
Published: March 2005

Abstract (E): This article explores the scope and importance of the art of Korea's silent film narrators exemplifying Foucault's view on individuals as agents of power. It discusses the narrators' art and its audiences, and the ways in which both developed towards the 1930s. It also relates the large number of skills the narrators required and looks briefly into what role their social backgrounds may have played in developing these.

Abstract (F): Cet article traite des conditions de travail des "bonimenteurs de film" coréens pendant la période de l'occupation coloniale japonaise. On aborde successivement les origines familiales et professionnelles de ces raconteurs, leur travail et leurs publics, pour étudier ensuite comment les rapports de dépendance mutuelle des films et des raconteurs ont commencé changer dans les années 1930. L'article met surtout en avant le rôle que jouaient ces raconteurs dans la constitution des interprétations populaires des films.

keywords: silent film, korea, colonial, narration, censorship


1: The emergence of film narrators in Korea.


In the early twentieth century many new forms of technology were introduced in Korea that quickly revolutionised the lives of those who had access to them. Apart from various new forms of transportation and machinery, new media helped to speed up and internationalise life in Korea. Radio, recorded sound, film and photography allowed fast diffusion and comparison of "real" images and sound. They made it possible for entrepreneurs to target consumers accurately and effectively and - at least for some time - with the supplementary quality of novelty. Although the new media were in most cases first introduced in the cities, generally by non-Koreans, their use was not necessarily limited to those living in remote rural areas, but the number of people who were able afford them there was undoubtedly smaller. The consequences of the new media, or the technology that enabled them, are significant with regard to identifying changes in the performing arts during the colonial period, but they are by no means the only vital factors. Of equal importance may be the growing capitalism and the self-image of performers, both toward the Japanese colonisers and their social environment.

Film and recorded sound came to Korea at approximately the same time, the first decade of the twentieth century, but they each had a distinct impact on their audiences. Although both media enjoyed enormous popularity and were equally instrumental in the internationalisation of the cultural entertainment of Koreans, films, first and foremost, induced ideals of visual beauty, thus creating fashions and common notions of style. Records, on the other hand, played a key role in the individualisation of music. To some extent they will have also induced notions of style, but much less, for a considerable part due to the near lack of images on the albums or their jackets. Korean music, which had generally been enjoyed as a group, now became a matter of individual choice. A selection of discs came to constitute a means to entertain oneself at any given time without the company of others in a way that expressed one's personal taste, and to some extent, religious or political conviction. When silent films, on the other hand, reflected any aspirations or convictions, they were those of the audience, often inspired by the narrators that provided them with commentary.

Film was an extremely popular medium during the colonial period. From around 1903 when public screenings of films began to be organised, the number of tickets sold grew rapidly, to 2.6 million in 1927 and 8.8 million in 1935. [1] Film theatres sprang up in all of the large cities, generally in the central districts. In most cases they were existing theatres that were simply equipped with projection screens, but some, starting with Kyôngsông kodûng yônyegwan (Seoul institute of high arts), were built especially for film viewing. By 1925 there were 27 film theatres throughout the country. The number of seats differed considerably, ranging from a few hundred to 1,000 seats. Best known among the twelve film theatres located in the capital were Kyôngsông kodûng yônyegwan, Hwanggûmgwan, Kwangmudae, Umigwan, Tansôngsa and Chosôn kûkchang (Korea theatre). [2] While some of these theatres, including Hwanggûmgwan and Taejônggwan, focused on Japanese customers, others, such as Chosôn kûkchang, Tansôngsa and Umigwan, were especially popular with Koreans. [3]

The first Korean film narrators ( pyônsa ) emerged at some point in the first decade of the twentieth century. The earliest public screenings of foreign films took place around 1903, [4] and it is likely that it was from around that time that people went up in front of the audience to explain and enliven the silent movements on screen. The images on screen were particularly "foreign" at the outset. At first cinema in Korea constituted primarily actuality films that showed short scenes of daily life somewhere in the West. When they began to disappear around 1912, longer films of approximately one hour appeared that had people acting out stories. Koreans were, however, still largely unfamiliar with the Western societies in which the stories were set. Although the silent films sometimes had words displayed on screen, few people in the audience would know what they meant. The narrators provided some background information regarding the strange occupations, machines, institutions, and the non-verbal communication. Live music was probably added soon after in order to liven up their performance and help push the sound of the projector to the background.

The first mention of the term pyônsa ( pyôn = eloquence, sa = learned person) appears in the Hwangsông shinmun (Capital gazette) of 24 June 1908. It was borrowed from Japan where benshi , written with the same Chinese characters, were already a common phenomenon as part of various theatre genres many years before the arrival of film. [5] Throughout the colonial period both Korean and Japanese benshi came to be employed in Korea, but because some Korean narrators were also able to speak Japanese, I surmise that upon the arrival of talkies in 1935 the number of Japanese benshi decreased much faster than that of their Korean counterparts as Korean narrators continued to be employed by "Korean" theatres where they still enjoyed considerable popularity and where the installation of a sound system probably took longer than at Japanese theatres. [6] Unlike in Japan, where groups of four to eight narrators worked together, in Korea narrators usually worked individually. Since some theatres screened several films consecutively, however, on occasion up to four narrators took turns in providing commentary. But only large theatres such as Tansôngsa and Umigwan could afford to employ more than two narrators. The majority of the theatres could only afford one or two per evening. [7]

During the colonial period some twenty-five Korean film narrators were active, [8] including U Chôngshik, Kim Yônghwan (1898~1936), Kim Chosông (1901-1950), Sông Tongho (1904~?) and the brothers Sô Sangho (1894~1940) and Sô Sangp'il (1901~?), and Yi Pyôngjo and Yi Pyôngho. The number of Japanese narrators working in Korea seems to have been larger than that of their Korean counterparts, probably because Japanese narrators were accustomed to working in groups. Although there were a handful of women among the Japanese narrators active in Korea, the Korean narrators were all exclusively male. [9] Since during the silent film period audiences often came to see a specific narrator rather than a specific film, cinema advertisements highlighted the narrators performing. [10] Their role as agents of a great new medium combined with the right voice, looks and sense of humour could turn some narrators into pop stars overnight. A number of them were also asked to perform live on the radio, and even, like Kim Yônghwan and Kim Chosông, in films. [11] On occasion, film narrators were also asked to perform a film play on a recording, usually with the help of one or two singers or actors and a small orchestra. [12] In the mid 1920s, the heydays of silent film, the average monthly wage of a narrator was 70 to 80 wôn , with especially popular ones earning as much as 150 wôn , which was almost four times the average wage of upcoming film actors and high Korean officials. [13] The theatres were sometimes forced to offer them competing fees in order to get them to work for them, so very popular narrators generally ended up working for only one or two theatres. Sô Sangho, for example, was the chief narrator at Tansôngsa, while his brother Sangp'il was connected to both Tansôngsa and Hwanggûmgwan. Another narrator working for Tansôngsa was Kim Tôkkyông, while Yi Pyôngjo and Kim Chosông became the chief narrators at Umigwan and Chosôn kûkchang respectively. [14] As soon as the screening had ended, kisaeng (professional geisha-like young women entertainers) would sometimes stand ready with a rickshaw competing with each other for a popular narrator's favour. Sô Sangp'il is said to have been particularly popular with young women and many are said to have primarily come to Tansôngsa to see him perform. Some narrators, therefore, led an extravagant lifestyle full of drinking and women, and because their actions were under much public scrutiny, sometimes they ended up the subject of a scandal. In April 1913, for example, the Maeil shinbo reported that Sô Sangho had sneered at the audience at Umigwan. It was probably a reaction to the pressure caused by constantly being in the public eye. [15]

U Chôngshik was one of Korea's first professional narrators. It is reported that he came from an upper-class military family and spent all days going out and watching films. The manager of Kwangmudae therefore asked him whether he would be interested in working as a narrator. Although it is said that U became the most popular narrator among kisaeng , [16] his voice was weak. It is reported that one day when he began to waver while performing to an American comedy, some one in the audience shouted: "Oi, give it up! Get the hell off stage!" Feeling humiliated, U subsequently went to Kim Tôkkyông to ask him to take over, thereby effectively launching the latter's career. Kim did not only have a very good voice and way of speaking, but because he had gone to college, he was also familiar with the literature on which some foreign films were based. [17] But not all film narrators had middle- or high-class backgrounds. Shin Ch'ul (original name: Shin Pyônggyun) was born in Chinnamp'o, Pisongni, in South P'yôngan province in 1925. He came from a poor family and after running away from home ended up working as a cleaner at a movie theatre in exchange for a place to sleep and some food. Since he saw performances of narrators every day, he began to practise narrating on his own. One day, when he was fourteen years old, he was asked to fill in for the narrator Kim Sôngdong who had fallen ill, allegedly because of a rough night at a kisaeng house the night before. Since it concerned Imja ômnûn naruppae (The ferry without a boatman), a film made by Yi Kyuhwan in 1932, it suggests that due to the phenomenon of film narrators, who could provide very different experiences of the same film, a silent film could draw audiences for many years. Shin was much praised for his performance and was asked by Kim Sôngdong, who had apparently watched from the back, to accompany him on his tours. [18]



2: The practice.


The practice of film narration was initially limited to welcoming the audience, telling them about the preview, and explaining the films' foreign content before screening ( chônsôl ; chôn = before/prior, sôl = explanation). At the start of a film, the musicians would play some introductory tune at which point the narrator would come forward to give the introduction and then sit down behind a small table on the left side of the screen. The introduction was done in a somewhat archaic narrative style. [19] It is probably because of the short duration of the earlier films that the introduction was included in order to stretch the duration of the screening. [20] When the screening began, they would further explain the images and actions from the side of the screen. [21] With time, however, narrators also began to provide simultaneous narration and dialogue, and even performed songs and short additional acts. As the scope of their performance increased, so did the amount of attention they drew from the audience to the point where the audiences would focus more on them than on the film. The musicians that provided accompaniment were seated behind the screen. [22] The narrator did not always rely on the musicians to add sound effects and often added some of his own, for example, by stamping his feet, or by beating the small table or a drum. [23] He was connected to the musicians and the projectionist by way of a bell cord. By pulling the cord once or twice, he could signal his colleagues to go slow or fast respectively, but there were occasions on which his signals were ignored or misunderstood, so he was forced to slow down or speed up himself. [24]

When it was time to change the film rolls, the narrators for some time made efforts to entertain the audience by loosely talking to them, probably about the film they had just been watching, but this was not always appreciated. In the Pyôlgôn'gon (Special report of the north and southeast) of March 1927, one finds the following complaint:

Playing music during the ten-minute break relaxes the tired minds of the audience, and would seem very useful. But then the narrators come out and stand there chatting idly. Isn't it pitiful when they lay their intimate thoughts, which are really not worth listening to, bare to five hundred or a thousand innocent people? And if they're only there to advertise the film you are going to show next, why would you then [also] put a notice board on stage and write it on the programme guides? I wonder. It would also be nice if you had some other form of entertainment during the ten-minute break besides the orchestra. It's impossible to ask something like that of theatres that are in dire straits, but if there were a dancer, a singer or a solo-performer, then there would be sense in having a ten-minute break. [.] Dear narrators, allow me to make a suggestion. It's just that it might be okay to write hada and hasôtta , but when you use them in speech, they can have a bad effect on people. To the elderly going to the cinema for the first time it will be very irritating. It will sound much more intimate to the young and old if you correct that habit using hayôssûmnida and hayôssôssûmnida . [.] There are also narrators who break a long tense scene with a (dirty) joke. Such narrators used to be welcome at comedies to add to the wretchedness; misery is good, but when things are too miserable, they sound overly cheap. [.] Also, when a scene has already past and you take that scene up again, then you do that, too, out of your own interest, but the viewers do not appreciate such narrators. I would be very grateful if you could give these particular points some consideration. [25]

The narration during the main feature was of course the main focus of the audiences' scrutiny. Although disapproval of a narrator's performance was usually expressed in magazines, the Maeil shinbo of 18 January 1919 reports that a man became so annoyed by a narrator's performance at Umigwan that he began to throw chunks of hot charcoal at him. [26] It was perhaps with the growing criticism in mind that Sô Sangho came up with his Ppungppungi dance. It is said that it began with the band of musicians behind the stage playing dance music on the lower keys. The theatre's main lights were dimmed and five spots would light up the stage. Suddenly, a bicycle horn would sound and Sô would come up from the left side of the stage holding out his left arm sounding a bicycle horn. [27] He would then leave the stage and come up again on the right side dressed like a gentleman with a frock and a bowler hat dancing an unusual, obscene dance while sounding the bicycle horn from in between his legs, where he would then be clutching the trumpet. [28] Another reason for the emergence of comedy acts in between the film changes was undoubtedly the fact that the films often broke as most of them had been used in Japan for up to three years prior to being imported to Korea. The quality of these films was sometimes very bad, so even when the film did not break, the audience would have trouble noticing important details. [29]

Each narrator had a particular genre of films he specialised in. The brothers Sô Sangho and Sô Sangp'il, for example, specialised in real-life dramas. They were renowned for their good English pronunciation, which in Sô Sangho's case may be ascribed to his alleged earlier work experience as an interpreter. [30] Sông Tongho, on the other hand, was most comfortable performing love stories and comedies. Others, such as Yi Pyôngho and Yi Pyôngjo specialised in action films. [31] A narrator's specialty was usually given by their style of performing. Sô Sangho's style, for example, is said to have been fluent, while that of Sô Sangp'il has been termed "conversational". [32] Indeed, when listening to a recording of Sô Sangp'il's narration of Kim Sangjin's film Panga t'aryông (Miller's song) on Victor 49099, we can hear Sô speaking in a dramatic fashion with somewhat monotonous, rhythmic syllables and very short changes in pitch, while a recording of Sông Tongho performing to Na Un'gyu's 1926 film Arirang on Regal C 107 and 108 reveals a much more compassionate voice that closely follows the narrative and quickly changes from a dramatic to a humorous tone. [33] In the Maeil shinbo (Daily report) of 1 January 1925 Hong Wônsaeng praises Kim Chosông for his performance during Hayagawa Sótaró's 1923 Ch'unhyangjôn (Story of Ch'unhyang) because of his ability to sometimes sing flute-like notes, and his "wonderful voice that is like a mountain stream that flows down gently until it is briefly stopped by a rock before murmuring on its way down again". [34] Another narrator whose voice was particularly favoured was Kim Yônghwan. It is said that his voice was so full of passion that it evoked many ovations throughout his performance. [35]



3: Stand-by comedians.


When around the mid 1930s talkies emerged, they quickly limited the possibilities for narrators to earn a living. The fact that on 12 August 1938 Sô Sangho died of an opium addiction in a corner of Umigwan at the age of 49 is likely to have been caused by his sudden unemployment. [36] Some film narrators, such as Kim Chosông and Kim Yônghwan, formed entertainment groups that provided film narration, as well as music and comedy. Kim Yôngwhan was probably the first narrator to make the transition to comedy as the main course. In the early thirties he had made several "nonsense" ( nônsensû ) records, including Kkolbulgyôn chônjip (The unsightly couple) (Columbia 40313 A/B), and Ch'ôlli wônjông (The long, thousand-mile road) (Polydor 19037-A/B). [37] It is reported that in the 1930s he formed a group named Sôngjwa (Constellation) whose repertoire was among the first to be labelled pyônsagûk ( kûk / gûk = play). In the beginning of 1935 it was joined by Kim Chosông's Yewônjwa group, which on top of providing the narration and accompaniment to a film, played jazz music, sang popular songs, and performed small plays with the help of several actors. [38] The reason for the emergence of these groups was twofold. Not only did they seek to professionalise the intermission entertainment and in doing so persuade theatre managers to continue to employ them despite the near disappearance of silent films, but they also hoped to compete with other forms of theatrical entertainment, such as new-school plays ( shinp'agûk ), k'inodûrama, and the increasingly popular shows of stand-up comedians, chaedamkkun. [39]


Advertisement for a pyônsagûk of Arirang (Chungoe ilbo 24/1/1930)


During the colonial period the most noted representatives of the genre of stand-up comedy proper, chaedam (witty chat), were Pak Ch'unjae and Shin Pulch'ul. Although stand-up comedians already existed, often as part of a group of itinerant entertainers, [40] it was due to the new media that they were able to survive the wave of technocracy that swept so many other folk musicians of the urban stage. Born in Seoul, Pak Ch'unjae (1877-1948?) [41] studied shijo (sung poems) and chapka (refined, professional folksongs) with the noted singer Pak Ch'un'gyông (1850?-1920?), and kasa (narrative songs) with Cho Kijun (1835?-1900?). In 1900, despite being only twenty years old, he was appointed Special Inspector for Music and Dance of the Royal House ( Kungnaebu kamubyôlgam ). Among his many talents were folksongs from the central Kyônggi and northwestern P'yôngan and Hwanghae provinces [42], witty chat and palt'al (foot-mask play). Andrew Killick cites an eyewitness report of the latter from the late 1920s:

This was an act in which the performer, lying on his back, wore masks on his feet and held musical instruments in his hands, and while operating each of these, did the voices ( sori ) with his mouth. It was known as three-in-one ( samwi ilch'e ), and had been created and performed by Pak Ch'unjae, who is said to have played it in the royal court. Lasting about ten minutes, it mostly treated humorous subjects and the movement [of the masks] was also extremely comical. [43]

Apart from the foot-mask play, Pak's comic repertoire invariably included the songs Changdaejang t'aryông (Song of general Chang), and Kae nôkturi (A dog's words conveyed by a shaman). These pieces are clearly reminiscent of the folk art of p'ansori (long narrative song) on which much of the chaedam repertoire and performing style was based. P'ansori pieces, which can last for many hours and much resemble small one-man operas, commonly involve only one musician and one singer. They are made up of refined sung ( ch'ang ) and spoken ( aniri ) parts, whereby the musician usually spurs the singer on, and, but only occasionally, engages in dialogues. The words of a Nipponophone recording of the dialogue of Kae nôkturi from 1913 reveal a similar call-and-answer-type structure. Like Paebaengi kut (Ritual for Paebaengi), a p'ansori -like piece from the northwestern provinces, and the structurally similar Changdaejang t'aryông , however, many of the phrases are in spoken Korean and easy to understand. [44] In the 1910s and 1920s, when Pak's star continued to rise due to his work for the radio and large record companies such as Nipponophone and Victor, he began to join itinerant entertainment groups that generally offered only traditional performing arts including the old-school drama that was his specialty. [45] One of these was Kwangwôldan, which offered both old- and new-school musical drama.

Shin Pulch'ul (1905-?) become a star only in the early 1930s, due in part to his recordings of p'oksogûk (plays that crack you up) on the Chieron and Okeh labels. Best loved among his repertoire were, among others, the comic stories of Taemôri yônggam (The bold old man), Ôngt'ôri (The nitwit) and the Robin Hood-like Hong Kiltong . [46] Yi Pohyông, a noted expert on Korean folk music and head of the Society for Korean Discology (Han'guk ko ûmban yôn'guhoe), told me:

There were two styles of chaedam : there was the traditional style whereby the speakers used the traditional intonation, and the modern, Japanese style - mandam - whereby the speakers used the modern Japanese - Kabuki - intonation. Pak Ch'unjae was one of the old style, and Shin Pulch'ul one of the modern, Japanese style. (Yi, pers. communication, 26 Nov. 2000)

The emergence of all kinds of entertainment groups, both old school and modern, Japanese or Western-style, probably led Shin to form at least one travelling entertainment group. It is reported that at some point it included the later "holder" of folksongs from the northwestern provinces, Yi Ûn'gwan, Pak Ch'ônbok, the comedian Song Hongnan and the singer Kim Kyech'ul. [47]



4: Catering to different tastes.


Both stand-up comedians and film narrators mastered a variety of skills, including singing, dancing and comic story telling. To add to the complexity of their work, however, they, more than other entertainers on urban stages, had to be able to work for different audiences that sometimes included both Koreans and Japanese. Unlike film narrators, stand-up comedians all had low-class backgrounds, so those working for Japanese audiences probably learned Japanese by themselves. Because the need to directly relate to Japanese culture was much greater in the case of films than in, for example, music, some narrators came from the higher strata of society who had access to high school or university level education. Despite differences in background, personal qualities and audiences, it seems that both stand-by comedians and film narrators could become popular among all strata of society that had access to the new media, in most cases because of their singing or storytelling skills. The invariably Japanese-owned record companies will not have cared much whether the comedians relied more on dialogue or not, but in order to be noticed by their target audience, having musical skills appears to have been essential. Sô Sangho is one of few narrators who were able to provide narration in both languages. [48] This implied connecting with people from all levels of society, [49] speaking Japanese as well as Korean, singing in a Japanese and a Korean style, and perhaps, to some degree, being aware of essential differences in humour. When they interpreted images in ways that corresponded with the expectations of the audiences, the narrators - and here I paraphrase Roland Barthes - burdened them with the culture appropriate on that specific occasion. [50] Regardless of their social background, therefore, narrators were always in a different position from that of comedians due to the fact that they invariably interpreted new technologies and foreign cultures. Because they were the transmitters of those ideologies, comforts and values that were part of the newly emerging social order, this gave them a position of authority. The narrators will, however, have been very much aware of the many limitations of that position. As Michel Foucault has shown, power is never a one-way process in terms of cause and effect; as its vehicles individuals are always "simultaneously undergoing and exercising" power. [51] After all, even in their heydays narrators were at the mercy of, among other things, the audiences and the media, as became painfully clear upon the advent of films with soundtracks.

Films and, to some extent, the skills of their narrators allowed the audiences to stay in touch with international developments on a cultural, political or technological level. On the surface such an ambition may not seem conducive to any form of nationalism, but to both the Japanese and Korean audiences the words of the narrators were full of new jargon that constituted a new - to use Benedict Anderson's words - "language-of-state" that connected them to other modern citizens elsewhere in the world. [52] A Japanese listening to a Korean narrator speaking Japanese may also have felt a sense of pride over their achievements on the peninsula, but to Koreans the experience will of course have been very different. Being part of the Korean middle-class or elite that was able to associate with the Japanese on a cultural level may have given them more reasons to feel pride over their identity. Ernest Gellner argues that even cultures that have no state of their own will strive to create such a state because it is the only way to "protect the educational and cultural infrastructure without which a modern, literate culture cannot survive". [53] If one were to view the modern theatres as educational institutes, then, from a nationalist point of view to follow what went on inside could perhaps be regarded as a form of cultural maintenance. At the same time, the images on screen helped them to imagine a different reality, providing them with an escape from the reality of everyday life, and gave Koreans access to levels of society that had for long been inaccessible to them. [54]

In the 1930s, Korea continued to develop rapidly in terms of industry and technology. Due to new systems of communication, information moved faster and had more impact. Seoul became very much the commercial heart of Korea, not only in terms of the market potential that this community with the highest average wage entailed, but due to the availability of all kinds of media, also in terms of marketing strategies. [55] As it had been proven that things "foreign" were superior in terms of technology and effectiveness, its culture too began to have a great effect on Koreans and Japanese, though Korea rarely saw the cross-gender fashion and performance styles that seem to have originated within Japan and became popular in both Japan and China. [56] In their efforts to keep up with Western or Japanese fashions and mannerisms, the language, misdemeanour and clothing style of Seoul's middle- and high-class urbanites thus changed quickly and repeatedly over the colonial period. Because of the shared desire of copying Western styles, the distinction between Koreans and Japanese was somewhat blurred on the outside. Although since 1913 advertising had differentiated between Japanese and Koreans, [57] the distinction was very much one related to national identity rather than style. The recordings, the radio and printed media homogenised the two identities stylistically, though this is not to say that the new perception implied a different view of Korean nationhood.

In the 1910s central Seoul became divided into two areas that catered to either Japanese or Korean audiences. While the so-called "northern town" ( pukch'on ) of Chongno offered entertainment venues for Koreans, the "southern town" ( namch'on ) encompassing Myôngdong and Ch'ungmuro catered towards Japanese. Although the theatres were therefore to some extent separated, by the 1930s affluent Korean urbanites began to frequent cinemas aimed at Japanese audiences. Many of them thought that viewing Japanese films with Japanese narration maximised the films' entertainment value, and some of them even ridiculed the idea of viewing Japanese films with Korean narration. [58] Some theatres actively discouraged Koreans from entering, by giving them bad seats or none at all. [59] I surmise that cinemas catering towards Koreans were never very appealing to Japanese audiences because they did not provide Japanese commentary and sometimes failed to meet the standards of comfort they were accustomed to. [60] A 1936 Japanese tourist guide with characterisations and price comparisons of all kinds of cinemas also lists Chosôn kûkchang and Tansôngsa, describing the latter as a modern theatre specialised in foreign films "with high-class visitors from all corners of Korea" and Korean narration. Although some Japanese residents enjoyed listening to Korean shin minyo (new folksongs) and kayo (popular songs), it is unlikely that they would visit these cinemas for any reason other than curiosity. [61]

Japanese censors, however, now strictly monitored music and film, so there was little risk of embarrassment. Already in May 1922 the Japanese Government-General's Office of Police Matters (Kyôngmuguk) had set up Disciplinary Rules ( Ch'wich'e kyuch'ik ) in order to prevent any form of subversive public entertainment. On 15 June 1933, these were expanded in order to ensure no subversive record was brought out on the market. [62] In 1942, four years after it had been decided that Koreans were no longer allowed to speak Korean, all films in Korean were forbidden and all Korean licenses for film making revoked. During the last three years of the colonial period, all actors and actresses therefore spoke Japanese. These developments did not, I believe, stand in the way of stylistic homogenisation, but they certainly served to further differentiate the cultural identity of Koreans. Despite the strict censorship, therefore, many artists began expressing dissident views in their performances. Shin Pulch'ul, for example, who is well known for his anti-Japanese comments, was more than once arrested during a performance and carried away in handcuffs. [63] Narrators sometimes took great liberty in explaining a storyline in order to express their political views. Shin Ch'ul was once arrested and beaten after improvising an anti-Japanese line while performing to a Japanese film in Pusan, [64] while Sô Sangp'il famously used the galley slaves' revolt in Ben Hur as a metaphor for the Korean independence struggle. [65] On 16 January 1929, the socially involved Christian Yun Ch'iho wrote in his diary:

"3.p.m. went with chang and ki to Tansôngsa to see Ben Hur screened. The pyônsa or the interpreter used the word kamsa instead of ch'ongdok to designate the Roman governor of Palestine. Strange the police permitted the films in Korea at all." [66]



5: A new era.


It was in Seoul that common performances of film narrators discontinued first, because the cinemas there were the first be equipped with a sound system. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, [67] however, the advent of sound did not mean the immediate demise of film narration. Not only did narrators sometimes turn off the sound to have more freedom, [68] but between 1945 and the mid sixties, k'inodûrama and silent films continued to be made because of their low cost and undiminished appeal. [69] The genres disappeared, however, soon after. Foreign films had quickly become much more popular than Korean films, and I surmise that it was because Koreans wanted to hear the Hollywood stars talk and sing themselves (and because they had now become familiar with many of the foreign images on screen) that they began to prefer listening to the actual sound. Shin Ch'ul, however, the last to work as a film narrator in Korea, regarded TV as the principal reason behind the demise of silent films, because of its negative effect on movie ticket sales in general. Throughout the better part of the seventies he ended up working for a government office of public information, travelling around the countryside to show and, I assume, comment on documentaries and education films. In the late 1980s he made efforts to revive the genre, but so far these seem to have been fruitless, and it is now only on special occasions that he is asked to perform his art. [70]

Perhaps due to the popularity of the prolific recording artists Pak Ch'unjae and Shin Pulch'ul, the genre of stand-up comedy had become very much limited to their work and that of their followers. The survival of the genre thus came to depend very much on them, but unfortunately Pak Ch'unjae died already shortly after the Pacific War. Among the highly skilled artists he left behind are the former "holders" of the genre of Sônsori sant'aryông (Standing mountain songs), Yi Ch'angbae (1916-1983), Chông Tûngman (1907-1992) and Kim Sunt'ae (1914-1978), and the comedian Chang Sop'al. Chang Sop'al continued to be active for many years and in 1975 appeared on Taedo Records' Minyo mandam (Comic folksongs). [71] On 1 June 1983, Yi Tongan, another former student of Pak, was appointed "holder" of palt'al (foot-mask play). Despite Shin Pulch'ul's strong subversive views, he, like most other performers at the end of the colonial period, had to comply with the Japanese policy of conformity and pay "consolation visits" ( wimun ) to the Japanese military. After the liberation, he continued to perform, even after he moved to North Korea where, in 1954, he was awarded. Shin became a member of the North Korean Munhak yesul ch'ongdongmaeng (Union of Control of Literature and Arts) in August 1957, and head of the Mandam yôn'guso (Research Institute for Comedy) in September 1961. In 1963 he was punished for being a liberal. It is also reported that after he became a member of the Chungang pangsong wiwônhoe (Central Broadcasting Committee), he appeared as a comedian in an anti-South Korean broadcast in December 1967. [72]

The media and the audiences' expectations have developed much since the advent of film. Globalisation has made all kinds of images and sounds from all corners of the world available to Koreans and it is unlikely that they will now require an explanation for something in a film they are unfamiliar with. They may, in fact, appreciate films that confront them with aspects or images of foreign cultures they have not yet been subjected to. Another quality that is probably valued more by contemporary cinemagoers is a film's ability to captivate its viewers and make them forget they're in a cinema, in the presence of others. It is conditions such as these that make it unlikely that the genre of film narration will return in its old form. Comedy, on the other hand, is very much alive in Korea, but there are not many professional stand-up comedians who are able to draw audiences to small venues and most of them now work for the media. In the popular music scene there are nonetheless still many occasions where one finds the direct performer-audience interaction that once formed an essential part of the work of film narrators. Whether it is something that follows from the art of film narration, from chaedam or the long tradition of p'ansori , or from something more recent, such as the intimate performances of singer-songwriters in clubs in the sixties, many Koreans seem to enjoy listening to pop stars alternate between personal, spoken anecdotes and song. [73] Yet their dialogues and stories are valued for their reflection, their ability to view the limitations of the digital age, and as such they perhaps have come to constitute the narrators of what was always there, as opposed to of what is new.






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[1] See Lee 2000: 18 and 21. Lee notes that the figures were based on approximately one-third of the population at the time. I surmise that since especially those living in urban areas were counted, the actual number of tickets sold will not have been much different.

[2] See Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 40 ; Chông Chonghwa 1997: 23. It is important to note here that some of the theatres, including Umigwan and Tansôngsa, also showed other forms of entertainment besides films.

[3] Although it catered towards Koreans, Umigwan was established by a Japanese named Hayashida Kinjiro . See Cho Hûimun 1997: 196.

[4] See Yi Yôngil 1992: 662; Lee 2000: 18.

[5] Cho Hûimun 1997: 193.

[6] Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259; Yô Sônjông 1999: 18-19; Cho Hûimun 1997: 213.

[7] See Yô Sônjông 1999: 33.

[8] Cho Hûimun 1997: 203.

[9] See Cho Hûimun 1997: 204.

[10] See Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 40 .

[11] See Academy of Korean Studies 2000: 95 and 97; Chông Chonghwa 1997: 24; Ho Hyônch'an 2000: 33.

[12] See Yi Pohyông, Hong Kiwôn and Pae Yônhyông 1999: 93-98.

[13] Ho Hyônch'an 2000: 54; see also Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 144 .

[14] See Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259; Chông Chonghwa 1997: 24; Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 145; Yô Sônjông 1999: 38.

[15] Cho Hûimun 1997: 210; Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259.

[16] Chông Chonghwa 1997: 26.

[17] Ho Hyônch'an 2000: 53-54.

[18] Shin came to master over a hundred films, including Na Un'gyu's Arirang (1926) and Ch'oe In'gyu's 1940 Suômnyo (Tuition fees). See Lew 2000: 6-7.

[19] See Yô Sônjông 1999: 32; Cho Hûimun 1997: 197.

[20] Cho Hûimun 1997: 190.

[21] Yô Sônjông 1999: 32.

[22] The first decade also saw the emergence of plays that were performed in front of a screen that showed short, silent films in the background whenever there was a scene considered unfit to be acted out by the actors on stage. These so-called yônswaegûk (an abbreviation of yônswae hwaldong sajin'gûk , 'connected moving pictures plays') or k'inodûrama (Kino [film] dramas) also involved a combination of dialogue and film. According to Walter Lew, they were inspired by Japanese rensageki performances. See Lew 2000: 4-5. It seems that in Korea these forms of theatre came up in 1919 and began to disappear, albeit slowly, five years later.

[23] See Cho Hûimun 1997: 211.

[24] It appears that because Japanese films were made with the eventual narration in mind, there was never much need for Japanese narrators to alter the speed of a film. See Ishizaka Kenji 1996: 2 and 9.

[25] See Kim Chinsong 1999: 188.

[26] Cho Hûimun 1997: 209.

[27] Yô Sônjông 1999: 32.

[28] Yô Sônjông 1999: 32. Yô notes that the dance is said to have occasionally changed from something that looked Hawaiian to tap dance.

[29] Yô Sônjông 1999: 39.

[30] Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 145 ; Cho Hûimun 1997: 196.

[31] Their heydays were in 1915 and 1910 respectively. See Chông Chonghwa 1997: 63.

[32] Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259.

[33] See King Record Co. SYNCD-120~122: Musông yônghwa moûm (`Early Silent Motion Pictures Collection') (Seoul, 1996).

[34] Kim Chongwôn and Chông Chunghôn 2001: 146 .

[35] Shim Hun 1931: 58.

[36] Cho Hûimun 1997: 215; Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259.

[37] Yi Pohyông, Hong Kiwôn and Pae Yônhyông 1999: 75-80 and 451-456.

[38] Yô Sônjông 1999: 36; see also Chông Chonghwa 1997: 24.

[39]Andrew Killick notes that in new-school dramas ( shinp'agûk ) too, the interludes evolved into a musical variety show with sketches and dance. See Killick 1998: 144-145.

[40] Sa Chinshil 2000: 300.

[41] While Chang Sahun gives the birth date 1881, Pan Chaeshik says Pak was born in 1883 and died during the Korean War. See Chang Sahun 1984: 310; Pan Chaeshik 2000: 249 ; see also Yi Ch'angbae 1976: 237; Pae Yônhyông 1994: 7.

[42] The term commonly used to indicate the Northwestern provinces is Sôdo (Western provinces).

[43] Killick 1998: 129-130.

[44] Performing with Pak, who plays the role of the shaman performing a ritual for a dog, was drummer Mun Yôngsu, acting as the client. See Pae Yônhyông 1999: 10-11.

[45] The groups are sometimes referred to as hyômnyulsa . See Killick 1998: 129.

[46] Academy of Korean Studies 1998: 673-685 and 728-741 ; Kim Myônggôn 1994: 193.

[47] Kim Myônggôn 1994: 193-194. A "holder" ( poyuja ) is appointed by the Korean government to preserve and teach a form of traditional art that is designated an "Important Intangible Cultural Property." See Maliangkay 1999: 74.

[48] Cho Hûimun 1997: 195; Taehan min'guk yesulwôn 1985: 259.

[49] Until the 1920s even the working class was able to regularly listen to a record at market places, where sometimes a busker could be found playing records. See Pan Chaeshik 2000: 272.

[50] Barthes 1977: 26.

[51] Foucault 1980: 98.

[52] Anderson 1991: 78.

[53] Gellner 1993: 17.

[54] In an article on the mass consumption of new technologies around 1900, Rosalind Williams argues that even seemingly true film footage is misleading, because "people want to evade reality, not to learn about it." She adds that cinema serves to create all kinds of "types" that are immediately recognizable as signifying a specific character or image: "cinema and its descendant, television, remain positivistic mediums, excluding all that is not fact, visually speaking." Williams cites the critic Louis Haugmard who in 1913 argued that silent films were exciting yet deceitful because they communicated by way of images only, while the presence of a narrator saw to it that the audiences did not need to think for themselves. See Williams 1991: 214-215.

[55] Yô Sônjông 1999: 16.

[56] See Robertson 1998; Jones 2001: 87 . A picture in Tonggwang 18 (Feb. 1931) (p. 7, unp.) shows five young Chinese girls with short hair dressed "according to the latest fashion" looking very much like men.

[57] See Yô Sônjông 1999: 17-18.

[58] Yô Sônjông 1999: 20.

[59] Yô Sônjông 1999: 19-20.

[60] Lee 2000: 21; Yô Sônjông 1999: 12 and 18-19.

[61] Keijó toshi bunka kenkyúsho 1936: 448-449.

[62] Kim Chip'yông 2000: 368; Cho Hûimun 1997: 202.

[63] Kim Myônggôn 1994: 193.

[64] Kenji Ishizaka 1996: 4.

[65] Lew 2000: 5.

[66] Kuksa p'yônch'an wiwônhoe 1988: 191. Chang and ki are Yun's sons Changson and Kison. All Romanised words are Sino-Korean characters; the remainder is cited literally. I am very grateful to Koen De Ceuster for pointing out Yun's comment.

[67] See Yi Yôngil 1992.

[68] I surmise this happened mostly with Western films. While audiences viewing the first Korean films will have enjoyed listening to Korean being finally spoken on screen, later, audiences will have wanted to hear the voice of the increasingly popular actors.

[69] Ho Hyônch'an 2000: 54; Lew 2000: 5.

[70] Lew 2000: 6-7.

[71] At the time of writing a picture of the album was available at

[72] Anon., 1968: 192 and 1036.

[73] One example is Kim Kwang Seok, whose 1999 album Insaeng iyagi (Stories of life), RLPD-036, was still very popular in 2004. Another is An Ch'ihwan, whose concert for the National Theatre of Korea's Yôldaeya p'esût'ibôl (Midsummer Night Festival) on 6 August 2004, for example, included many jokes as well as anecdotes related to socio-political issues.


Maliangkay wrote his PhD thesis on the preservation of folksongs in South Korea and the system of so-called "human treasures" at SOAS, London University (1999). Having lectured at SOAS and Leiden University's Centre for Korean Studies, he recently moved to the University of Amsterdam, where he now lectures core courses on the anthropology of Asia, and on recent socio-political issues in Korea and Japan. His current research focuses mainly on Korean folk music and popular culture.



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