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Yeosung Gukgeuk: Rehearsing Gender
About one year ago, I had a fortune to personally meet the historic figures in the field of yeosung gukgeuk (women’s Korean musical) through the help of my friend who happened to begin to study it. Yeosung gukgeuk is a new type of changgeuk (Korean musical) which started in the late 1940s and earned popularity in the next two decades for a relatively short period. It had the singularity and subversiveness that characters of all ages and both genders were played by ‘female’ actors. These legendary actresses, whom I met not on the stage but in an ordinary place, looked just like “grandmothers” but they often identified themselves with the “fabulous male characters”, without drawing a clear line between stage and reality. It was rather regrettable to see that their strong sense of identity and nostalgia as “a stage star of the day” were ridden with resentment against passing time. Nevertheless, their enduring pride as an actress and passion for the stage, as well as pleasant play of words which were so non-normative and atypical for people in the ripe age of seventies and eighties, stretched far beyond the bounds of my imagination and I felt as restless as a manic, every time I met them and came.
How long have I forgotten this feeling? For me, this emotional state of affect began with a TV program about “Takarazuka” which I happened to watch while changing channels and definitely found my eyes caught by. Or, perhaps, it might have begun with Japanese cartoon books like The Window of Orpheus or La Rose de Versailles which thoroughly fascinated me much longer before the program, or even with the tomboy girl in my middle school days who gave me the experience of being overwhelmed by love. Or, rather, it might be utterly unimportant to find out where it originated, for I already fully understand how this kind of affect, or emotion has constructed me. The meeting with these one-time big stars was indeed an awakening to where I am referring to, rather than a mere exciting and heart-throbbing event. I followed them with a camera, going on stage, back stage and off stage, which was not a process of making a sincere and straightforward document of facts, but of intervening myself in the gap between each category. In brief, to work “about”yeosung gukgeuk is not to “appropriate” certain images, but to constantly consider and reflect on the place where I or the camera ought to be situated.
In my The Masquerading Moments (2009), I focused on how the yeosung gukgeuk actresses playing male characters “masquerade” as a man. The three top actress in this work are Jo Geum-aeng, Cho Young-sook, and Lee So-ja, who respectively represented the three important male characters such as “Nimai(a leading man who is brave, kind-hearted, and romantic)”, “Sammai(a supporting role who commits ridiculous acts and makes witty remarks)” and “Gadaggi”(a villain who stands in the way of the romance between male and female main characters). The “masquerading,” or stage make-up, which is one of the various steps to complete each character, seems to me the epitome of the three old ladies’ life. The “process” of make-up occurring in the dressing room, that is, the in-between space placed on the boundary between on and off stage, is the liminal moment, the liminal practice, in which their female or granny body is mixed with the “male” body, building up the liminal history of its own. I was intended to be a witness to disclose the falsehood of the fixed identity, the binary division of gender, and the essentialist subject, putting myself, or the camera in the place like the mirror of the dressing room.
The entire process of “becoming” behind the stage is closely interwoven with the objective and the will that are stronger than those of the performance itself, as well as the activities to realize them. The Rehearsal(2009) capturing the final, three-hour long rehearsal of a yeosung gukgeuk performance is a metaphor for the transitive time, space, and subject which connect between on and off stage. As the process of management, tension, and refinement related to the total structure and the order which move from the off-stage daily condition to the real stage, a rehearsal is full of the language of grave movements which will determine the performance. The Unexpected Response (2009), the record of the rehearsal of Lee Deung-woo, the best actress for the role of Nimai in the present yeosung gukgeuk scene, solely emphasizes on the behaviors of this actress, excluding all the situations and contexts surrounding her. She gradually transforms herself into the almost perfect “ideal man” not only through facial expressions and voice but also through gestures of hands, feet, and shoulders, eye directions, feelings and so on. I carefully observed this process of refinement. In a way, the “performative parody” of completely playing the opposite gender on the stage gives an utterly unexpected response to the essentialist notion that only a biologically determined male can embodies masculinity in front of both players and audience. The explosive popularity ofyeosung gukgeuk produced not only stars but also devout group of fans. Women audience felt love toward the leading male character but they also knew that it is played by a woman, thereby finding themselves captivated by lesbianism. Theyeosung gukgeuk players for male characters represent a new type of subject which can never be confined to a fixed category of gender and the audience/fan’s “gaze” re-places this subject outside the category once again.
Nevertheless, in spite of this subversiveness and singularity, the yeosung gukgeuk faces the charge of its pre-modern content, and nowadays,just maintains it’s slender existence. But there have been the players’ incessant efforts to create new repertories and narratives and to find and support next generation artists. Furthermore, academic researches and papers began to approach it from meaningful perspectives and the production of documentaries, films, and comic books are carefully considered and attempted. If the present situation marked by these activities can be called the regeneration period of the yeosung gukgeuk, the interpretation of this women’s musical in terms of the language of art, the most unpopular thing you’ve ever seen, is undoubtedly a too heavy burden on me. However, I firmly believe that “working/doing art” in the language of art is also reorganizing the norm and order on the basis of “performance” and “fulfillment” through very active interventions and relationships. Thus, art is about movement, not about fixedness. The activity of representing the male characters of yeosung gukgeuk has been to me both a motivation and a tool for further artistic practice. As I said repeatedly, I am cautious that these several works will appropriate the representativeness of the yeosung gukgeuk as images. And I also wish that the various textures of meanings and understandings will not be fixed as an image, and the acquisition of the subject matter will not put limits on the interpretative experience which will be broader and more diverse.
On the other hand, it is owing to the help of my old friend Jihye, a mania and researcher of the yeosung gukgeuk that I dare to have courage to work on it. She always kindly set aside time from her busy schedule and gave advice to me so that I was able to polish my ideas and put my inspiration into practice. Needless to say, precious help was also provided by the actresses, Jo Geum-aeng, Cho Young-sook, Lee So-ja, and Lee Deung-woo. They neither avoided nor scolded me whenever I thrust a camera up to their face and welcomed me as if I were their adorable granddaughter. I must express my gratitude to the members of Yeosung Gukgeuk Preservation Society who always warmly embraced me. And my thanks also go to Lee Min-ah and Lee Eun-soo, my friends and students who willingly assisted me on the shooting spot and my friends Kim Hyun-jin, Kim Hwa-yong, and Na Young-jung who supported me in every aspect in order to proceed this project practically and materially.
My artistic inspiration came from the materials such as:
Kim Jihye, “Gender Politics in Performance and Acceptance of Female Gukgeuk in 1950s”,The Journal of Korean Drama and Theatre, Vol 30, 2009.
Baek Hyun-mi, “The Sexual Politics of  Yeosung Gukgeuk in the 1950’s in Korea 2”, 2007.
Bahn Jae-sik and Kim Eun-sin, The Biography of Im Chun-aeng, the Prince of Yeosung Gukgeuk, Baekjungdang, 2002.
Jo Young-sook, A Free Soul Laying Her Head On the Stage, Myeongsang, 2000.
Jeon Jinsoek and Han Seung-hi, The Story of Chung-aeng, Seoul Cultural Publication, 2008
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, trans. by Jo Hyun-jun, Munhakdongne, 2008.

By siren eun young jung

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