Cinema Review: Traditional Eastern Film, Superlative Sonic Source

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It's one of those things film scholars read about but never get to experience, let alone experience two in three days.

History was made at the PFA last weekend as cinephiles were treated to not only a Japanese benshi, but a Korean byonsa, possibly the first time this has ever happened in America, according to film studies professor Chris Berry.

The benshi and the byonsa are orators who stood by the screen in the silent days to narrate and comment on the events that occur onscreen. Decades have passed since the heyday of the benshi and byonsa, times when audiences stormed to theaters based on the popularity of the narrators as much as that of the actors.

I was lucky enough to see why audiences so revered the benshi and byonsa this weekend, catching one screening of each - benshi Midori Sawato's performance of Ozu's "I Was Born, But..." and byonsa Chul Shin's performance of "A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher," one of the last remaining Korean silent films in existence.

I think it's essential to first note that I don't understand Korean or Japanese, so my response to the performances are based purely on sonic qualities rather than verbal ones.

I'm told by Jong Lee, president of KIMA, the organization that put on the Korean Film Festival of which Shin's performance is the highlight, that the byonsa is derived from the pansori tradition, a stage art in which the performer sings and narrates. I can certainly hear the melodic traditions in Shin's oration. Expressive and dynamic, his speech has highs and lows reflecting the tone of the story and the emotions of the characters. His chants not only capture the feelings-the humor, the sadness, the fury - but the traits of the characters - modesty, respect, integrity. While the print of the film was grainy and distant, the sound of his voice is immediate and firm, making connections in ways the film never could.

Sawato had a tougher task-adding narration to an already brilliant film. Her style differed significantly from Shin's. She's more formal. The professionalism of her dress (a suit with green bowtie), the strict attention to fitting dialogue with action, the reliance on a script contrasted with Shin's more casual tone, which was more commentary than dialogue, based on apparent instinct than notecards.

This contrast brings up the interesting issue on how an addition to the original film text can completely alter the film experience. Just as happy music over depressing visuals has a powerful and intriguing effect, the decisions made by the narrator has a profound influence on the experience of film art. Both performances this past weekend were entertaining in their respective modes, and seeing as how I, and most people in the audience, have no critical reference when it comes to byonsa and benshi, the intrigue set forth by the sheer concept of the narrator was enough to spur uproarious applause after each screening.

Experiences like this test our understanding of film. For example, the distinctions between the uses of image and sound suddenly manifest intensely, as we're suddenly aware of how one affects the perception of the other. This became immediately clear in relation to comedy. Are there certain kinds of comedy that are purely visual? So what happens when you add narration to them? The comedies of Jacques Tati immediately come to mind. These are films that are intentionally silent, where the humor derives from the peculiar visual setups, exaggerated by the noticeable absence of sound. Yet, there are moments of music that add new rhythmic patterns to the visual rhymes, creating an effect that is both playful and profound.

At a symposium held Monday with the two narrators and three Berkeley faculty members, the topic of film authorship came up, and the question many people had in mind was: since the narrator obviously has a powerful effect on the experience of watching film, then whose film is it-the narrator or the director? Do directors influence the narrators and vice versa? Such performances question our concept of what constitutes a film and art in general, and that alone made the weekend thrilling and valuable.

But even if one doesn't consider all this, if one just sits and enjoys something different, KIMA and the PFA have provided us with a great service exposing us to rich culture that is quickly disappearing (Shin, one of the last surviving byonsas, has stated that this is probably his last US performance). It doesn't take a Korean or Japanese speaker to know how lucky they are to have such an opportunity.


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