Prior to the twentieth century, gisaengs were, to the vast majority of Koreans, a largely abstract concept. They performed for kings, they entertained nobles in private, and acted as prostitutes. One of the many useful bits of information in "Gisaeng: A Flower's Confession" is explaining how this is a misperception. These were actually three completely different classes of gisaeng, that were easily confused because they were referred to by the same title and received the same kind of artistic training.
Indeed, a pretty critical undercurrent in "Gisaeng: A Flower's Confession" is how gisaengs were, for all practical intents and purposes, just entertainers. Hence why their art form exploded in popularity in the early twentieth century thanks to new distribution methods. Larger performing venues, advanced photography, and sound recordings all helped to make gisaengs' traditional performances a great deal more accessible to common citizens. Even newspaper advertising for gisaengs was common, as far off as Japan even.
Directors Hong Tae-sun-I and Lim Hyuk did some fairly meticulous research here. Although really, plenty of credit has to go around to the rest of the staff- not to mention the interviewees, many of whom were trained gisaengs with valuable firsthand knowledge- not that they like to tell these stories, since so much of gisaeng culture has been so thoroughly misunderstood. Which is a real shame, considering how much rich material there is. At one point a Korean professor makes a trip to Japan to gain access to Japanese documentation of the phenomenon.Even there we find people who remember the gisaengs, and have fond comparisons of that artform to Japanese geishas.
The main information that's missing in "Gisaeng: A Flower's Confession" is what happened to the gisaengs, and how they went from being such huge sensations to disappearing almost overnight. Part of this is just an issue with the documentary's length. At under eighty minutes of runtime, it certainly seems like a third act could have been added explaining what happened to the gisaengs.
But then that would have inevitably gone against the documentary's otherwise positive and celebratory tone. Besides, it's easy enough to guess what happened. The gisaengs' rise to fame was fueled in large part by the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Expanding the market for their work by definition required they collaborate with the Japanese. Even if gisaeng performances are, also by definition, traditional Korean art, it's easy to see how their reputation was permanently damaged by the post-Occupation environment.
There are still the little influences though. Take the tambourine. Now a staple in karaoke bars everywhere, those were originally popularized by gisaeng performers who worked those and other foreign instruments into their existing musical repertoire. Traditional Korean performances as we know them today all descend from gisaeng interpretations that were popular during this period. Even traditional Korean clothes in the modern day derive their influence from gisaeng-popularized fashion trends. There is a lot of very good history in this documentary.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Gisaeng: A Flower's Confession""
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