Media analysis of the South Korean film
The Sound of a Flower and its historical references to East Asian performing arts.
The Sound of a Flower (도리화가; Dorihwaga) is a South Korean biographical drama released in 2015. In part, the film shares the story of Shin Jae-Hyo, a pansori teacher, and Jin Chae-seon, an aspiring pansori performer. However, complications of their dynamic supersede centuries of gender-specific roles in East Asian performing arts. The lead role, played by actress Bae Su-ji (Bae Suzy), is an orphaned girl raised by gisaeng during the Joseon Dynasty. However, she distances herself from this way of life. Jin attends several public pansori performances as a child which elicit an unwavering emotional connection to the vocal art form and teacher, played by Ryu Seung-ryong.
Pansori is a traditional form of folk storytelling that involves an acoustic singer and drummer. The term pansori derives from the Korean words pan (판) meaning “a place where many gather,” and sori (소리), meaning “sound,” UNESCO, page 1. Since its inception, the genre was performed in informal settings such as private homes, markets, or gardens and focuses on representing the authentic experience of lower-class citizens. “It doesn’t belong to the rotten aristocrats, it’s the stories about low-born like myself. I wanted to tell these stories to the common people. I wanted to console them,” Shin, 18:30. Society in early modern Asia was structured around three primary factors: class, gender, and hierarchy. Conformity to role expectations was essential, with consequences.
This hierarchy consists of four kinds of people; scholars, farmers, artisans, merchants. Outside of these occupations, there were also commoners and low-caste. Non-productive work (such as entertainers) and reproductive work (such as courtesans) were seen as shameful lifestyles, both in emotion and virtue. This context is crucial to understanding the complications of the relationship between the performers and noblemen in the film. Shin believes in pansori as a form of spiritual connection to Korean ancestors that serve as a catalyst for teaching historical lessons on the betterment of humanity. The nobles reduce the performances to a popular form of entertainment for the royal courts. They believe that performers couldn’t possibly grasp the complexities of their literature. “It’s a song about a scholar reciting poem by the lake. Full of class and grace! What use is pansori to lowly commoners who can’t truly appreciate the art?” Nobleman, 24:40. Shin continues to experience the hardships of oppression from being stuck in a lower class. Depression sets in. This does not seem lost on Jin as she confronts him for the lack of recent marketplace performances and motivation, commenting on his frequent drunkenness. “Your eyes are mirky, like rotten water. This is not like you,” Jin, 25:31.
At this point in the film, Jin has discovered what she wants but is disillusioned. Being born a girl proves to be more difficult to overcome than anticipated, just as ‘The Song of Shim Chong’ alludes. “After my prayers and deeds, this child I bear in late years is but a daughter?” Kwak-ssi, page 128. The fantasy to persuade an entire society to change ideology overnight settles and a more realistic approach to influence culture arises. She has found her voice, both literally and metaphorically, and now works to refine her appearance and approach for the best possible chance at success. One of my favorite scenes is when Jin sits to apply makeup side-by-side with her gisaeng caregivers, but in place of rosy cheeks or pretty eyeshadow, she draws on thick eyebrows and a faint mustache. This serves as a visual representation of her embodiment of being an opera singer. She continues to secretly watch pansori lectures and privately practice singing.
In 1864, King Cheoljong (ruler of Korea) died without a next of kin. This left disputes between the royal family as to who was best suited for power. Yi Myeong-bok was later appointed Prince by Queen Sinjeon and (due to his young age and profound duties) his father, Daewon, was formally named to assist and mentor his rule. I did not understand the complexities of this situation as it unfolded in the film on the first watch, 20:55. Language can have what is called a high context culture. This means information is shared implicitly with nuanced gestures to communicate nonverbal messages. Several phrases and body language observations in the discussion between Shin and Daewon potentially hint Daewon did have the incentive to rule in order to lead the country to a better place than its current form. Not in a sense that he would ever take the throne by force, but that he recognized it was in the realm of possibilities and wanted a pulse on commoner life in the event his reign became their reality. “You have a sharp gaze for a drunk man. I guess for you and I, acting is the only way to endure life in this country. Then maybe one day we’ll see a good time. Let’s meet again when the good time comes,” Daewon, 20:15.
The Joseon Dynasty had weakened due to a multitude of international factors. Parts of East Asia were rapidly increasing their industrialization which was heavily influenced by the western world. Catholic and protestant missionaries brought new troubles of drug trafficking and religious evangelicalism to destabilize the societal harmony in the eastern world. And foreign interests in Korea increased as the power struggles between China, Japan, Russia, and England radicalized. Prince Daewon sought to create solidarity during these transformations and held a Nakseong Competition to celebrate the rebuilding of the palace and find a ‘new voice befitting of the new era.’
Rituals play a significant role in Korean culture. Ceremony propriety centers on Confucianism and rulers had to be mindful of the effects performing arts had on society. “They used li, the rites or etiquette, to guide people’s desires. They used yue, music, to harmonize people’s nature. They used zheng, government, to moderate people’s behaviors. They used xing, penal codes, to guard against people’s base inclinations. They share the same ultimate purpose, that is, to pull people’s hearts together in creating a peaceful, safe and stable world,” Book of Rites, page 6. These revelations existed long before Daewon, Jin, or Shin and certainly would outlive them all. Progressing national identity is a delicate venture as a country (and its virtues) can become unrecognizable on the other side of reform. This complexity was at the forefront of decision-making in Korea as the concerns of Japanese colonization and western influence were on its heels.
Shin discovers the first juxtaposition of its kind; a means to improve his quality of life and amplify the art of pansori by winning the Nakseong Competition. In order to accomplish this, he knew his academy needed to prepare a one-of-a-kind performance. He had the idea of dividing the singing parts to create a new style that would be unconventional enough to catch the Prince’s attention. However, he could not obtain the approval of his leadership. The concept was shut down and Shin was punished for stepping out of line by having his best singer poached to perform for another academy. Once again, Shin became dejected as the likelihood of influencing the royal court slipped away from him. He drinks himself into oblivion and doesn’t wake up on time on the morning of the town festival. One of his signers finds him and helps drag him to the stage location. Without realizing it, the singer formulated a backup plan with Jin as the lead performer. It is unknown to him at this time that she is a woman and it was unknown to Shin up until this point that Jin was the young girl who cried at his market pansori show years ago. “I just wanted to sing for people to hear. For my mom to hear. I want them to hear me. Just this once,” Jin.
Shin realizes he is out of options and decides to risk his life and life’s work. Jin, dressed as a young man, impresses the audience until an accident happens during the performance that reveals her identity. Shin is violently punished, as the council places blame and shame on him for disrupting orders (making a girl sing) in a seemingly sad attempt to save the failing Dongli Academy. This is the moment in which Jin sees a firsthand account of the cost of her dream and understands that further pursuit is likely lethal. “Master said to me that we’ll train in the mountain and go to the capital. We’ll put up a performance that’ll make everyone laugh and cry. And that’s how I became my master’s disciple,” Jin, 43:08.
The final plot arch is the pre-competition tryouts at the palace where Jin and Shin perform. Unfortunately, another academy teacher recognizes Jin and stops her from auditioning by announcing to the judges that she is a girl. I believe an underlying reason he did this was out of fear she would win the competition; an unconscious acknowledgment of her abilities. Later that night, Shin appears on the steps of the palace and begs to meet with Prince Daewon. Asking for a favor is a grave embarrassment, and Shin’s logic seemed too closely related to Catholic ideology, so he is imprisoned. Jin wanders the city aimlessly without Shin until she makes eye contact with a gisaeng that raised her (and is now at the palace). The next scene is the most profound symbol in the film, in my opinion. The gisaeng, whose lifestyle Jin rejected, still take care of Jin at great personal risk. Jin is allowed to board their floating stage platform to conduct a surprise performance for the Prince that night. The gisaeng could all face death for facilitating such mischief, but chose to help Jin despite valid fears of retaliation, 1:10:48.
“I know, that a girl can’t be a singer. But how is a man any better than a woman? My father was so honorable a man, that he ran out on my mom as soon as she conceived me. My mom did everything she could to put food in my mouth. She died trying to keep me alive. Born into this world as a girl, I should be prepared to sell my body or soul to stay alive, but all I want is to sing. That’s the only thing I want in life,” Jin. She was born a girl who lost her loving mother, raised by a community of resilient gisaeng women, and now is face-to-face with a chance to contest the very patriarchal system that has silenced and oppressed women for centuries. Goosebumps. Jin’s performance persuades Prince Daewon to give her and Shin a chance in the competition. However, because of the political affiliations now involved in this liability – they are put on a glass cliff (a situation where women ascend a leadership position through challenging circumstances with the risk of failure being high and consequences detrimental). “If you succeed, you’ll become the first female master pansori performer in history. Your teacher will also achieve fame and prestige that he longed for so long. But if you fail, that would be betraying my kindness for which you will both pay with death,” Prince Daewon, 1:15:06.
The grand finale is their performance of The Tale of Chunhyang (a forbidden love story across social class and hierarchical divides). This time, Jin is dressed as herself, a never-before-seen female performer, and faces the entire palace community and King for judgment. The narration by Shin also becomes a beautiful ode to the life of Jin. “Being born a girl without two dangling balls, life is hard. So hard for her to sing. If she had known this, she’d have wrested with the birth goddess and persist not to be born. Life is so tough and sad. She sees no end to the mirky cloud, but only sees a long and winding road before her. But what can she do that she is thrown into this world? Let her at least pour out her heart in the song,” Shin, 1:20:08. Being understood gives Jin the assurance needed to perform louder than ever before. Even the other academy teacher begins to see what is truly unfolding and supports their performance. Jin professes her love for Shin through lyrics during the pansori and they win the competition. Prince Daewon assigns Jin to the royal court, and she lives most of her life apart from Shin. However, the final scene bookends the opening scene with a woman running through the snow. This time she does not run from pain of loss… but to the happiness of ending life in full bloom with Shin.
by Cambria Nesryn | 11.14.2022
Sociology student, College of Charleston
• Confucius. “The Book of Rites,” pg. 6. (2013 – translated edition).
Accessed Nov. 8, 2022
• Fischer, Li, Wang. “The organization of Chinese shame concepts.” (2004).
Accessed Nov. 10, 2022: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ddl/articlesCopy/LiWangFischerOrganiztnShame.CogEmotn2004.pdf
• Google Play Movies. “The Sound of a Flower.” (2015).
Accessed Nov. 14, 2022:
• Pihl. “The Song of Shim Chong,” pg. 128. (1994 – translated edition).
Accessed Nov. 2, 2022
• The Tale of Chunhyang, quoted in film (translated edition)
Accessed Nov. 14, 2022
•UNESCO. “Pansori Epic Chant.” (2008).
Accessed Nov. 6, 2022: