could say the real life trailblazer Jin Chae-sun made BoA and Bae Su-zy
possible. Like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare
in Love, Jin scandalized Joseon Korea when it was revealed she really was a
woman playing a woman on stage. Unfortunately, the Prince Regent Heungseon
Daewongun was a much tougher audience than Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, fate will
not let her voice stay silenced for long in Lee Jong-pil’s The Sound of a Flower (trailer here), which screens
during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
until the late 1800s, public singing was a man’s business, except of course for
kisaeng, but their performances mostly took place in private. As fate would
have it, Jin’s dying mother leaves her in the care of a kisaeng house, where
she serves as the maid. While still grieving her mother, the young Jin is
struck by a piece of pansori, a traditional form of Korean opera and story-telling,
whose young tragic heroine bears a striking resemblance to herself. The leader
of the troupe, Shin Jae-hyo also makes quite an impression.
her passion for singing, Jin approaches Shin when she reaches something like
adulthood, but the grouchy pansori master promptly turns her away. Undaunted,
Jin opts for the Shakespearean option, gaining admittance to Shin’s academy by
passing for a man. Naturally, the truth will out, but by that time Shin starts
believing in her talent. He plans to hasten progressive social change by
winning a national singing tournament in the capital, but alas, the prince
regent is not as reformist as he had assumed.
Flower is a perfectly
respectable film, but it never rises above the level of a well-meaning but compulsively
safe period piece. While Paltrow is androgynous enough to credibly bend her
gender, K-pop star Bae Su-zy is not the least bit manly. Nevertheless, she is
so earnest and openly vulnerable, she definitely gives us something to keep
watching. Oddly, master brooder Ryoo Seung-ryong is uncharacteristically flat
as Shin, but Song Sae-byeok adds some attitude and non-shticky comic
counterpoint as Shin’s primary accompanist, Kim Se-jong.
Obviously, women were eventually allowed to sing
in Korea and it sort of started with Jin. It is a good story, but Lee bizarrely
loses confidence in it, piping in some generically saccharine soundtrack music
over her climatic performance. Frankly if you do not believe Jin’s vocals can
carry the moment, you probably shouldn’t be making this film in the first
place. Regardless, Bae is a radiant presence, especially when Jin is at her
saddest. There is also probably just enough tragic longing to satisfy fans of Korean
dramas. Nice but not transcendent, The
Sound of a Flower screens tomorrow (7/7) at the SVA Theatre, as part of
this year’s NYAFF.
Labels: Bae Su-zy, Korean Cinema, NYAFF '16