London was treated to something very special today as Korea’s oldest surviving silent film was screened at the barbican exactly the way its original 1934 audience would have seen it.

Young-bok has been adopted into Bong-Sun’s family as her intended husband. For seven long years he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, no matter how tedious or demanding, without complaint. Now 21, Bong-sun’s father is beginning to think the time for Young-bok’s marriage is near seeing as Bong-sun is now sixteen. However, tragedy strikes as Bong-sun is seduced by another man from the village. Heartbroken, Young-bok takes off for the city to make something of himself there, leaving his mother and sister behind in his home village.

Although Yong-bok is a good and kind young man, his heartbreak leads him to waste his life in drink. When working at the station one day he catches sight of the man who crushed all his young hopes in the village – little does he know of the havoc he is still to reek on Young-bok’s city life.

Unbeknownst to Young-bok, his younger sister has come to the city to look for him following the death of their mother. Unable to find him she takes a job as hostess in a bar where she falls prey to the same man that ruined Bong-sun and an even worse friend of his. Young-bok also begins a tentative romance with a girl, Ge-soon, who pumps petrol but she has her own problems as her father’s ill health and rising debts have decreed she is to become the third wife of a money lender to satisfy them. Can these three young people find each other and happiness despite the poverty and hardship to which they’ve been subjected?

In contrast to the way silent films were usually seen in the west, in Korea (and also, I believe, sometimes in Japan) rather than the intertitles we use to give crucial information of the story a live narrator (byeonsa) would interpret the action and/or act out some of it out. As I understand it director Ahn’s original script is lost (though fortunately a brief synopsis had survived) and a new version had to be put together by closely watching the film and filling in the gaps.  Kim Tae-yong director of Late Autumn and Family Ties effectively re-directed the piece for for the stage along with Cho Hee-bong who fills the role of the narrator. The new script is obviously not afraid to embrace the melodrama of the film’s storyline in a self aware way, even throwing in a few knowing jokes at its own expense.

The performance began with a song by two young actors portraying Ge-soon and Young-bok, both of whom had absolutely wonderful voices and interpretation. Even though there were no subtitles for this first part it didn’t matter as the heartfelt intention of the song came across perfectly. Once this finished the film started playing with English subtitles for what the narrator was saying. Occasionally the subtitles didn’t cover the length of the narrator’s speech or perhaps missed some of the nuances of his humour but there was never a problem knowing what was going on. There was then another song about half way through covering a particularly intense scene between Ge-soon and Young-bok with the narrator adding occasional dialogue in the middle and a final song song functioning as an epilogue. The film was accompanied throughout by a band of four musicians playing an energetic and lively score which worked extremely well with the film and atmosphere.

All in all it was a fascinating and extremely enjoyable experience which deserves to be seen as widely as possible.

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