In the 1950s, when there was little entertainment available, it was female "gukgeuk" that dominated the entertainment scene in Korea.
Like a musical, a "gukgeuk" performance features "pansori," or narrative singing, dance and drama.
What was special about gukgeuk in those days was that many troupes featured an all-female cast.
The actors took on male roles and dressed up as men, children or the elderly and played heroes or villains in melodramatic tales of war and romance, gaining huge popularity.
It was so popular that the troupes even performed during the Korean War, putting up shows in Busan, the southern seaport. The shows drew large crowds who lined up from dawn to catch a performance.
However, gukgeuk's popularity was short-lived and soon faded into history after television and films began to take over in the 1960s.
Revisiting the lost performing art are writer Seo Ireh and illustrator Namon, who have recreated the story of gukgeuk artists in its golden age through the historical webtoon “Jeong-nyeon.”
The pair ran the series on Naver Webtoon, South Korean tech giant Naver's web-based cartoon platform, from April 2019 to May 2022, to much positive review. Publisher Munhak Dongne has been publishing graphic novel editions, with its upcoming volume six scheduled for a March release, with exclusive post-credits scenes.
The gripping story is now adapted into "changgeuk" by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, scheduled to premiere on March 17. It is also being adapted for a television drama series.
One sentence about female gukgeuk that Seo came across while taking a class on Korean modern literature was what started it all.
“One of my friends tossed me a research paper on female gukgeuk after we read about it in class. It was so interesting. How could something so popular be forgotten in less than 100 years?” said Seo during a recent interview with The Korea Herald, together with Namon.
“It made me sad and I wanted people to know more about this history,” Seo said.
“It was difficult to find anything, actually. All the books and scripts were lost or out of print. We relied mostly on a few video documentaries and oral data that were recorded during the 1990s when there was a brief movement to revive female gukgeuk,” said Seo.
Namon said she was intrigued when Seo first approached her about the story.
"We had always wanted to do work together with a bit of a queer element. I loved the fact that there would be so many different female characters I could draw and was thrilled about the episodes we could create,” said Namon.
The coming-of-age webtoon depicts the development of a female training troupe affiliated with a gukgeuk company in the 1950s. The heroine, Jeong-nyeon, is a talented girl from the port city of Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, who dreams of life as an actor. Jeong-nyeon shines as a trainee and together with her friends and rivals, they strive to become the best gukgeuk performers.
A compelling portrayal of different female characters captivates the readers throughout: from Young-seo, Jeong-nyeon’s rival who craves validation from her family, to Bu-yong, Jeong-nyeon’s love interest who suffers under social expectations.
“Each character has a certain personality, so it wasn't too difficult to draw them differently. Jeong-nyeon is active, energetic and from Mokpo, so I drew her with tanned skin. Young-seo is from an elite family and a perfectionist. So she ties her hair up in a sleek ponytail,” said Namon.
The two attribute the webtoon’s success to its powerful storytelling and “the right timing.”
“One reader sent me a photo of her grandmother reading this webtoon in the graphic novel edition. Her grandmother had seen female gukgeuk when she was young,” Namon said.
“I was delighted to see that for the younger generation this is an opportunity to get to know gukgeuk whereas, for the older generation, our work reminds them of their childhood.”
Seo said it also comes at a time when there is a heightened interest in female narratives.
“I’ve been working on female-led works since my debut but I cannot believe the level of interest we are getting with 'Jeong-nyeon.' I have heard many say that they had been waiting for something like this,” she added.
Seo and Namon said they are looking forward to seeing their webtoon adapted into a live performance.
“We are thrilled to see our story and drawings come alive on stage and on television, especially the dances and the plays-within-a-play.”