An Engaging Elegy of Period Storytellers
Currently featuring at the 2021 London East Asia Film Festival, The Singer, released in South Korea in July 2020, tells the tale of an early 1700’s Joseon Dynasty singer and the rise of pansori, allegorical songs about the suffering of common men and women.
Much like the minstrels of old, the songs had two missions: make a bit of scratch for roaming hand-to-mouth performers. And spread the tales of injustice in a time of suffering, recording moments that would otherwise be forgotten.
Just as in other parts of the world, pansori singers pre-date the news industry, serving to connect communities over commonalities. Considering their laborious lives, it was likely a welcome break – a chance to laugh, cry, dance and commiserate.
Written and directed by Cho Jung-Rae, in this 118 minute historical drama, we meet a singer whose wife is abducted by a band of thugs selling their captives into slavery. The Singer – played by Lee Bong-Geun (who is actually a modern-day pansori singer) – trills a similar but not exactly seditious musical tale that zeros us into his family circumstance. At the same time, he acknowledges that corrupt governments are nothing new, with power, money and in-fighting at the crux.
Both the story and story-within-the-story are predominantly less-than-happy tales but the fan club, as we’ll call them, plus the young daughter, serve to lighten the mood throughout. So, it’s not a complete weepy but a balanced tale with an unexpected ending.
If you followed last year’s London Korean Film Festival stories, the 2019 film Jesters: The Game Changers covered a similar setup of roving performers out to influence, but with a more avaricious goal and a lot more comedy.
In this more realistic tale, the best bits are the song itself, skillfully implying injustice and completely captivating its audience. The backstory of the family grabs you up front and the group of hangers-on keep you there. Although we don’t really know why they’re there.
As a likely piece of history – most of it seems plausible – it’s interesting and conjures sympathy. Yet somehow the resolution feels a bit like a plunge pool on a chilly day. It arrives a bit abruptly for the pace and perhaps a little too cheerily compared to the magnitude of struggle.
Just a little flicker of additional detail around the supporting characters may have added a bit more depth and cushion. Without that, the storyline feels a little random toward the end. Luckily the solution is crafty rather than magic, with an advocate cleverly tucked in.
As an emotional glimpse of life? We’re buying it. But the story itself could maybe use some arm floaties toward the latter quarter to smooth out the flow.
Part of the line-up for the 2021 London East Asia Film Festival, The Singer will be screened in London on October 24th. The festival runs from Oct 21-31. For more information, see the website here.
Verdict - 7.5/10