A Legend Dances Her Way to Big Screen

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A Legend Dances Her Way to Big Screen

Often in modern Korean history, an artist's work would be banned once he or she was accused of advocating political ideas out of step with the government of the day. Choi Seung-hee, a tremendously gifted and misunderstood dancer, was one of those artists.

At home in South Korea, where Choi spent her childhood dancing around a well with her water buckets in rural Hongcheon, Gangwon province, in the 1920s, she became known as a mysterious artist who fled to North Korea with her mad, Marxist husband, An Mak. While in Japan, where Choi studied modern dance, a group of ethnic Koreans involved in the nationalist movement ostracized her for performing for the Japanese Army. "An ethnic traitor," they branded all who worked with the Japanese. Neither description does her justice.

A Japanese filmmaker, Hujihara Tomoko, has created a 60-minute documentary about her eventful life called "Choi Seung-hee, the Legendary Dancer" that is having its first showings in Korea beginning Friday.

"Looking back, Choi Seung-hee was more of a nationalist than pro-Japanese," says Kim Mae-ja, a leading dancer who appears in the film as a sort of mediator, linking Choi's dance history with the traditions of modern Korean dance. "But above all, she was just a dancer." "We don't even need to define her as a 'traditional dancer,' because she had an artistic language of her own that transcended tradition." Ms. Kim says that perhaps one of the most frustrating moments in Choi's career was when she was asked to create more "ethnic" works in North Korea. "It distracted her artistic desires," she says. "Her works started to loose strength after that."

Perhaps Choi's life would have been an entirely different story if, while she was studying dance in Japan under Baku Ishii, a pioneer of modern choreography, she had not met An Mak. An was a Russian literature major from Waseda University. He was a Marxist theorist who published one of the first books that deal with radical class issues in Korean literature, "The Path of Proletarian Realism." He and Choi went to North Korea in 1946.

In the film, Kim interviews Choi's distant relatives, old friends and pupils who are now scattered throughout China, Japan and Korea, some of whom kept in occasional contact with Choi when she was in North Korea. Through the black and white footage and a series of interviews, the documentary brings back images of the great dancer who is still stained with a pro-Japanese reputation - when she is thought of at all.

The film includes footage of Choi's heyday in the mid-1930s, when she traveled around Europe, South America and the United States to perform in front of cultural celebrities such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and John Steinbeck.

Dressed in a glamorous costume with a Western, flapper-style hairdo (radical for its time), Choi entertained her audience by bringing traditional Korean dance into a modern, global setting. Among her male fans in Europe, she was nicknamed "the pearl of the east."

It's uncertain what had exactly happened to Choi after her last performance in China in 1962. After canceling a major show in Japan at the last minute, she mysteriously vanished from the public's eye. There have been rumors that Choi became a mistress of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But more likely is that she got caught up in a round of the North's political purges. That is what happened to An Mak shortly before she disappeared. Her close involvement with the Japanese dance scene or not being faithful enough to the government's ideological concerns were the possible causes.

Kim says the film is a good chance for Koreans to rethink the anachronistic view of Choi as a Japanese collaborator. "Not that it matters so much or it would change the context of her works now," says Kim. "But I think we still need to clarify this just for the sake of the years she spent in agony."

The film "Choi Seung-hee, the Legendary Dancer" will debut in Hoam Arts Hall, downtown Seoul, on Dec. 7-9. A screening in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, will take place on Dec. 9 at the Sori Arts Center. For more information, call 02-766-5210 (English available).

by Park Soo-mee

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