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‘Ghost Theater’ spotlights the return of the musical film

July 17,2006
It’s kitsch. It’s fun. It’s a musical fantasy about spirits haunting an abandoned theater.
Indeed, the film “The Ghost Theater,” which was the opening film at this year’s Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, is a delightful take on art, music and theater.
Viewers who go to their seats expecting something on par with “Chicago” or “Moulin Rouge,” however, are going to be in for a shock. The style and content of “The Ghost Theater” is so original, so deliciously eccentric that one could hardly see it as a typical musical film adopted from a Broadway production. A few critics in town have dubbed the film a Korean version of “Delicatessen,” a French film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet about a cannibal butcher.
Jeon Gye-su’s “The Ghost Theater” is more than original: It’s a step forward for Korean musical films.
“The film intentionally plays to the genre of ‘midnight movies,’ the kind of cult films from the 1970s, rather than looking like a classic MGM musical,” said Han Sang-jun, the chief programmer of PiFan. “It carries the surrealist feel of Jean Cocteau and the expressionist flair of films like ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’ It puts its story and its characters in a broad context by bringing documentary footage into a fictional plot, using various audio-visual experimentation.”
The evolution of Korean musical films has taken a dynamic ― yet shaky ― road. The first musical film produced in Korea was done in 1975, when Shin Sang-ok rolled out “I Love Mama,” a story about three musician daughters who try to get their mother re-married.
Other films, such as Lee Myung-se’s “Bitter and Sweet” or Kim Eung-cheon’s “Last Dance with Her,” were well-meaning excursions that ended in box office failure. One of the recent musical productions is “Mr. Lady” (2000), an ambitious project with a budget of over 3 billion won ($3.1 million) starring the veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki and mimicking the giant spectacle of a Broadway musical. The film’s shooting, however, was halted before nearly three-quarters of the movie was made, due to a shortage of funds.
Since the failure of “Mr. Lady,” musical films have appeared to be jinxed. Yet the run of bad luck might soon be over.
“Fox Family” a story set in an old theater, features beautiful women playing nine tailed-foxes ― mythical figures from old Korean fables ― who form a circus troupe after waiting 1,000 years to become human. “Dasepo Naughty Girl,” based on an Internet comic, stars teenage kids doing raunchy songs and dances.
“The Ghost Theater” is a story of wandering ghosts in a run-down theater who are somehow related to a mysteriously banned film.
In terms of style, the film imitates the Gothic taste of films such as “The Addams Family.” A substantial part of the film was shot inside a dark, dingy theater lit with glitzy chandeliers; the set design is excessive, often theatrical; the characters faces’ are shot with lighting technique that makes everything look like a Rembrandt painting.
But the Gothic European flavor stops there. There is something undeniably Asian about the characters in “The Ghost Theater.”
The character of Elisa, an overweight woman with hair like Marge Simpson’s, claims to be the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty; Wanda, who is obsessed with counting her hair strands, is an abandoned geisha from a wealthy landlord who gave birth to their son; Hiroshi is a Japanese lieutenant. So-dan is a little girl with a persona like Alice from the “Wonderland” book, who hangs out with the ghosts after visiting the theater in search of her grandmother.
The film’s dark humor, however, is a bit conceptual. The lyrics are overtly philosophical, filled with social parody paired with regret. The lyrics to the movie’s theme song go, “Rise, all live corpses! Shake off the long times of confusion. Drag out the cursed shadows. They dwell in exhausted souls. Everyone is the main actor at the Ghost Theater. It’s the phantom of the party for the dead.”
“The Ghost Theater” ― as with other musicals films in Korean cinema today ― relies on a familiar pattern of using social parody to subvert fears and despair, turning them into hopes and celebrations.
The director, Jeon Gye-su, a long-time theater producer and critic, proclaims his belief that fantasy “heals the sadness of an abandoned people.”
“I wanted to make a musical about the small concert of wounded lives,” he says. “That’s why I thought it was possible to shoot a musical film on a small budget. I wasn’t interested in making a sleek Broadway musical with pretty young couples, whose love story finishes with a grand display that has a chorus singing at their backs.”


by Park Soo-mee


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