Art as cultural legacy, as emotional accumulation: "You must suffer before becoming a great musician," the intransigent reciter declares, echoing Schumann. The artist (Kim Myung-gon) practices pansori, the traditional Korean folk-song which, between the Japanese hymns of the occupation and the Western pop of the liberation, has a tough time in modern days. A friend suggests calligraphy as the form of the future, but the singer insists on the vanishing aesthetic, which has been demoted to sparse presentations and sideshow hawking. The traveling troupe consists of his daughter (Oh Jung-hae) and adopted son (Kim Kyu-chul); both give their throats a workout but only the girl's got fierce vocals, the boy fumbles at the drum until he's given a harmonizing metaphor ("Level the road so the vehicle can pass"). Im Kwon-taek envisions pansori as galvanic eruptions of sorrow and bliss, and times one impromptu performance to a long take of the trio making their way down a sloping dirt road, magically modulating a static shot from wide vista to open-air proscenium. (Another is interrupted by a band, which whisks away audiences by playing a discombobulated "Besame Mucho.") The medium would later stand in for filmmaking (and film-watching) in Chunhyang, here Im instead offers it as a vigorous cultural institution that, even on the verge of becoming a memory, navigates family through national upheaval. Artistic transcendence doesn't come easy -- the heroine hopes to perform the eponymous wrenching number but her pansori is too light, she practices to a breathtaking snowy landscape yet hasn't endured enough to express it. Kim precipitates her blindness, steering Oh toward a Mizoguchian conclusion and the culmination of Im's august thesis, of music without the lived emotion to back it up as "only a mastery of sound."
--- Fernando F. Croce