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Genre-bending epic ‘Sun-sin’ explores inner struggles of national hero

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Oct. 25, 2023 - 12:06

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Director Lee Gina (left) and pansori singer Lee Ja-ram (Seoul Performing Arts Company) Director Lee Gina (left) and pansori singer Lee Ja-ram (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

The story of Adm. Yi Sun-sin, one of the most celebrated figures in Korean history, who led the country to victory against the Japanese invaders during the Imjin War (1592-1598), has been reimagined in diverse mediums, including drama series, movies, novels and even a graphic novel in English.

Set to premiere in November, “Sun-sin,” a genre-bending production by the Seoul Performing Arts Company brings together accomplished artists from various performing arts backgrounds, including director Lee Gina, pansori performer Lee Ja-ram and music director Kim Moon-jeong.

"Yi was truly an extraordinary figure who endured profound suffering in his life. We focused on his inner struggles and pain," said director Lee, speaking to a group of reporters on Tuesday.

"The weight of Yi Sun-sin's name is immeasurable in Korea. He is a national symbol and his story is known to every Korean. Consequently, we weren’t interested in recounting Yi’s life, as that has been done in many dramas, movies and novels,” said Lee.

“We deliberated extensively on what the stage and performing arts could achieve in just a two-hour span. So, the production focuses on Yi's resilience in the face of extreme suffering and the turmoil of the era."

Teaser poster for Teaser poster for "Sun-sin" (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

Yi's thoughts, anxiety and guilt during the war are vividly captured in his personal war diary, the "Nanjung Ilgi," which he wrote from the onset of the Imjin War in 1592 until just two days before his death in 1598. The creative team drew attention to Yi's dreams, which he recounted in his diary, and wove these eight dreams into historical events.

Dancer Hyung Nam-hee will portray Yi, conveying his inner struggles and pain through physical movements and dance. While Yi has few spoken lines, the narration, chorus and other characters will convey the dialogues and songs.

"Our performance can be best described as a fusion of three primary genres: pansori, dance and musical. Each part has already been created, and my task is to weave them together, effectively and seamlessly, following the emotional journey of the audience,” said Lee.

Director Lee Gina (left) and pansori singer Lee Ja-ram speak to the press on Tuesday at a cafe in Seoul. (Seoul Performing Arts Company) Director Lee Gina (left) and pansori singer Lee Ja-ram speak to the press on Tuesday at a cafe in Seoul. (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

Pansori performer Lee Ja-ram will bring to life the major naval battle scenes, such as that of the battles of Hansan, Myeongnyang and Noryang, through narrative singing accompanied by a drummer.

"Each battle has its own concept. For the Hansan battle, (I) solely focused on the pansori singing, with just a singer and a gosu, or a drummer. Myeongnyang incorporates chorus and dance, while Noryang includes theatrical elements," she said.

"Many moments in ‘Nanjung Ilgi’ deeply moved me, and I put my heart into this (to do it justice),” the pansori performer said.

“All the situations -- the battles and the war, even the factional strife within the nation -- weighed heavily on (Yi). But he remained steadfast in his commitment to protecting the country. I wanted to effectively convey this frustration through the songs," she said.

In addition to the intense battle scenes, the production intertwines musical elements that offer the audience moments to catch their breath. The poignant love story between Yi’s youngest son, Myeon, and Ha-yeon, a woman who disguises herself as a man to join the military, is told in a musical form. Ha-yeon is a fictional character created for the production.

“Sun-sin” is scheduled to premiere on Nov. 7 and will run until Nov. 26 at the CJ Towol Theater in the Seoul Arts Center.