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[Herald Interview] Lee Bong-geun moves pansori from stage to big screen

The pansori master who stars in ‘The Singer’ says he now wants to pursue an acting career

Pansori singer Lee Bong-geun (Little Big Pictures)
Pansori singer Lee Bong-geun (Little Big Pictures)

A master of the traditional Korean music genre pansori, Lee Bong-geun is launching a new career as an actor in the upcoming film “The Singer.” In it he plays the lead, Shim Hak-gyu, also a pansori singer.

Speaking with the local media on Wednesday, Lee said he vicariously experienced the original form of pansori -- a traditional form of narrative music -- during the filming.

“I thought that perhaps this is how the past masters would have sung. Although pansori has now become a stage genre, if we trace the origin, the film’s open setting seems closer to the original form. I sang as if I were performing in front of the crew and actors,” he said.

Set in 1734, “The Singer” -- Korean title “Sorikkun,” which specifically refers to a pansori singer -- tells the story of sorikkun Hak-gyu, who sets out on a journey in search of his kidnapped wife, Gan-nan. As he travels around the country, Hak-gyu performs “Shimcheong-ga,” a pansori about a young girl named Shim Cheong who sacrifices herself to the king of the underwater world to cure her father’s blindness.

“The Singer” (Little Big Pictures)
“The Singer” (Little Big Pictures)

Coming from director Cho Jung-lae, well known for his 2016 film “Spirits’ Homecoming” about wartime sex slaves, the film features veteran actors Lee Yu-ri as Gan-nan and Park Chul-min as the drummer who accompanies Hak-gyu on the trip. Singer-actor Kim Dong-wan -- also a member of first generation K-pop idol group Shinhwa -- stars in the movie as an impoverished aristocrat who follows Hak-gyu, and child actor Lee Ha-yeon plays Shim Cheong.

“All the performances were shot in one take as it was impossible to break down the emotions,” Lee said, adding that the actors performed all the music in the film.

While director Cho said his film paid homage to the classic pansori film “Seopyeonje” (1993) by the renowned auteur Im Kwon-taek, Lee said “The Singer” takes a different approach to the traditional Korean music genre.

“It’s an honor that our film could even be compared to ‘Seopyeonje,’” Lee said. “While ‘Seopyeonje’ focuses on the traditional sound of pansori and the thoughts of the sorikkun, ‘The Singer’ is more about the sound, which was created to console our family and friends. In that sense, I think ‘The Singer’ illustrates the purpose of pansori.”

For those reasons, Lee said he focused on delivering the lyrics and the emotions, rather than the professional techniques. “Pansori is about the joy, anger and sorrow of the common people and uses all kinds of vocals to deliver those emotions. It not only uses lyrics but mimetic words and onomatopoeia as well. Perhaps that’s why it’s called ‘sori’ (sound) instead of a ‘song.’”

“The Singer” (Little Big Pictures)
“The Singer” (Little Big Pictures)

Lee, 37, said he started singing pansori in middle school at the recommendation of his father, a calligrapher. Born and raised in Namwon, South Jeolla Province, Lee explained that it is common in his hometown to learn a traditional art and take up a related career.

A 26-year veteran of pansori, Lee says he plans to pursue a career in film acting.

“Watching the film, I found parts to work on about my acting. I was actually grateful, because you can never be satisfied with your first try. If I had been perfectly satisfied, I would have become arrogant. I want to try until my acting seems solid even in my eyes.”

Meanwhile, director Cho says his new film is based on a script he wrote around 1998 after watching “Seopyeonje” as a university student. The director not only decided to become a filmmaker then, he said, but was also inspired to learn the traditional music form himself. Lee explained that Cho is a skilled traditional drummer.

“Director Cho made sure that everyone over 12 could watch the film. Some might think the film is like a fairytale, but I think it’s a film that could show the charms of pansori to everyone. I’m sure people could come and watch the film without the slightest interest in pansori and still enjoy it.”

“The Singer” will open in theaters July 1.

By Choi Ji-won (