Wednesday, July 06, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Sound of a Flower

You 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.

Up 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.

Recognizing 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.