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Gisaeng Revisited in Modern Dramas, Musicals and Films

2006/10/25 Source

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

"Gisaeng", Korean female entertainers, often called "haeohwa", a flower that listens and talks, are a growing motif in Korean entertainment.

Gisaeng, renowned for sensual feminimity and intelligence, were versatile entertainers similar to the Japanese "geisha".

First appearing during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), Gisaeng played an important role in traditional culture, especially during the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910).

In the 17th century, Gisaeng legally belonged to the government and were obligated to perform various functions in the royal court. At the same time, they spread throughout the country.

Gisaeng were highly trained and excelled in the fine arts, poetry and prose. They were regarded as exceptional artists with special privileges yet, at the same time, courtesans with an inferior social status.

A renowned tale about a patriotic Gisaeng named Nongae in the late 16th century suggests Gisaeng were associated with the elites of the male-oriented society.

While entertaining Japanese generals at the Choksongnu Pavilion that overlooks the Nam River in South Kyongsang Province, Nongae led Japanese general Keyamura Rokusuke to a cliff, embraced him and cast herself into the river, killing them both.

Because of the depth and variety of their role in society, Gisaeng as all-around entertaniers _ musicians, dancers, poets, artists and lovers _ are now emerging as television, screen and stage heroines, in part because of their dramatic appearance. They are featured in many stories and cartoons.

The recent boom in Gisaeng-themed entertainment was triggered by the drama "Hwangjin-i", starring Ha Ji-won and airing on KBS. It drew attention to the 16th century Gisaeng, the "flower that understands words".

The drama is a top TV show, attracting 17 percent of viewers on average at the time it airs.

The heroine Hwang was born to a father from "yangban", or the noble class, and a mother from the lower class.

Renowned for her beauty, wit and artistic brilliance, she captivated many scholars and officials in her day.

Following the successful debut of "Hwang", other genres are vying to produce the Gisaeng-themed stories in various ways.

Gisaeng will be featured on the stage, too. Actor Heo Joon-ho is planning to produce both a muscial and a drama titled "Haeohwa".

The musical, costing about 3.5 billion won, will be a large-scale production of a Korean original. It is designed to compete with an increasing number of mega-sized foreign musicals.

The story will portray the life of four Choson women who enter a Gisaeng school, or "yegiwon", and develop into stellar Gisaeng.

The musical, now auditioning for major roles, will open in the fall of next year. The drama with the same title is to be aired next year, starring actress Kim Hee-sun and singer-turned-actress Park Ji-yoon.

Also next year, actress Song Hye-kyo and actor Yoo Ji-tae will star in the film version of "Hwang Jin Yi".

The famous cartoon "Gisaeng Iyagi", meaning a story about Gisaeng, by Kim Dong-hwa will be transformed into a drama and a musical next year. A-com International, a production firm, will produce the musical.

"Gisaeng Iyagi" will shed light on the life of Gisaeng in Songdo, the name of Kaesong, which is now in North Korea, during the Goryeo Kingdom.

According to musical production companies, Gisaeng fit well with current pop culture and the entertainment industry appreciates the arististic talents of the Gisaeng.

The Gisaeng theme is also in line with the recent trend in epic historical dramas".Gisaeng is an attractive theme especially appropriate for musicals, as Gisaeng sing and dance with love and passion, which are necessary for musicals. It is also the best genre to express Korean traditional beauty", said an A-com official who wished to remain anonymous.

"Also, the Gisaeng theme appeals to foreigners as, for example, `The Last Empress', the Korean musical, did because of its traditonal beauty", he said.

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