A travelling bard sings his way to justice in Cho Jung-rae’s musical drama.
“If you can make everyone cry, I will spare your life.”
Music is a powerful tool, used in countless areas of our lives: It spurs development in children, makes outcasts (or moody teens) feel heard, and can instil emotion in people without so much as uttering a word. But, more importantly, it can be the spark that ignites revolutions and starts political and cultural change. And it’s this capability that we’re looking at with the historical drama The Singer.
Set during the end of King Yeongjo’s reign, The Singer explores the rise of the pansori style of Korean song. Lee Bong-geun plays Hak-gyu, a performer known for his intriguing and intricate stories which he sings accompanied by his drummer Dae-bong (Park Cheol-min). While he is out of town one night, his wife Gan-nan (Lee yu-ri) and daughter Cheong (Kim Ha-yeon) are kidnapped by the infamous Jae Mae gang, secretly working for a local governor who is looking for slave labour in his mines. Hak-gyu finds Cheong has escaped, but the trauma has caused her to go blind. Desperate to rescue his wife, Hak-gyu sets off with Cheong and Dae-bong on a quest to find her, picking up a lot of allies and supporters along the way.
While the themes presented – that of upper classes abusing their power and exploiting their people – can be pretty heavy, The Singer thankfully never overdoes it with the bleakness. In fact the film’s biggest strength is in its ability to never get bogged down in these grimmer moments. It retains a lightness throughout that is necessary for what it wants to say. It’s an optimistic movie but never reaches the point of naivety. The story manages to stay grounded throughout: the victories are earned, and the defeats are bitter. I was impressed at how often it kept me guessing as to what would happen next.
That’s not to say it doesn’t run the gamut of standard genre clichés, however. From its opening minute, when we see his happy family dynamic, you don’t need to know anything about the story to know that the wife’s time as a free woman is limited. I’ll give it credit for taking a few lesser used paths: most interestingly, in allowing Cheong to join her father in his journey. As much as I enjoyed seeing the main group hang out, Cheong’s presence really helped win me over.
I also appreciated that they gave Gan-nan a little more agency than one might expect from a wife character in this kind of movie. That she ultimately doesn’t do much to help at the end isn’t much of a surprise (though no less disappointing), but I’ll give kudos to Cho Jung-rae, who also wrote the screenplay, for remembering she is a character who does what she can do improve the situation she’s in. I was relieved to find this wasn’t a Korean History Taken as it appeared to be at first.
And in fact, it has a lot more going for it. The Singer wears its central thesis loudly and proudly. People rally around Hak-gyu not only because of his charismatically told stories, but also because they see a force of change within him. Pansori music was a massive deal when it was first introduced during the Joseon era, because it gave common folk a voice, and it’s a strength that the Korean people have carried with them to this day, in an age where cinema can be created by anyone.
Separately, the pieces of The Singer don’t seem particularly fresh or fascinating and yet they all come together very nicely to make a satisfying, often charming and very sweet piece of cinema that I wasn’t expecting to like nearly as much as I did. Its endearing nature is further bolstered by an excellent cast of characters (at least for the most part. The villains do feel a bit underdeveloped by comparison). It’s certainly nothing you wouldn’t have seen before, but that’s not what it’s ultimately going for.
In a lot of ways, director Cho Jung-rae treats us the same way Hak-gyu does his audience. They’re looking for a good story, with plenty of drama but one that ultimately resolves itself nicely. Sure, it might feel like the ending, where everyone helps out to take down the cruel ministers, is a touch too cheerful, but Cho promised us nothing less. The Singer resembles a folk tale, in that regard, and what’s a good adventure story without a happily ever after?
Verdict: Sometimes saccharine but always sincere, The Singer is as relevant a story now as it was 250 years ago.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 3/10 for that excellent third act brawl
Party dynamic: All support, no DPS or Tank. They won’t survive the boss fight.
What’s for breakfast: Blood porridge
The Singer (2020)
Director: Cho Jung-rae
Writer: Cho Jung-rae
Lee Bong-geun – Hak-kyu
Kim Ha-yeon – Cheong
Park Cheol-min – Dae-bong
Lee Yu-ri – Gan-nan
Kim Min-joon – Kim Jun
Kim Dong-wan – Noble
Jung In-ki – Haeng-soo