A VOICE IN THE DARKOnce upon a time, when silent movies ruled, movie talkers were the stars of the silver screen.
Shin Chul, 75, was one such talker, making his audiences laugh and cry from the time he was a 14-year-old boy in a small theater in Pyeongyang. Mr. Shin back then was as much a star in his own right as Keanu Reeves in his “Matrix” sunglasses is today.
Mr. Shin, however, is alone now, the only movie talker left on the peninsula. Silent films today belong to museums, a slice of history, but Mr. Shin remembers the golden age.
It is hard today to realize how important and popular movie talkers once were. The skill of a talker could turn a movie into a hit, and was even more important than the actors. Movie talkers stood in front of the huge screen and explained everything that happened on the screen, as well as delivering all the lines of all the characters. Versatility was key, and movie talkers transformed themselves into everything from a little girl to an elderly grandfather. Their trademark dramatic tones could reduce a theater to tears.
“The Jazz Singer” (1927) ushered in talkies to the West, but not in Korea. Up until the 1950s, silent movies led by a great talker remained the No. 1 entertainment for Koreans.
Last Sunday afternoon at the Seoul Museum of History in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, Mr. Shin was reliving his glorious past. With his own ancient movie projector, he was again on stage, next to a screen showing the 1948 black-and-white silent film, “Geomsawa Yeoseonsaeng” (A Prosecutor and a Teacher).
In his favorite ivory suit, Mr. Shin stepped onto the stage, took the microphone and started to cast his magic on the auditorium full of elderly filmgoers. Mr. Shin’s deep, sonorous and loud voice was not free from the passage of time. He had to clear his throat several times, missing the right timing. He often needed to sit down to rest during the film, something he never did at his peak.
But he could still recite the 50-minute script by heart. Engrossed in the film, Mr. Shin almost moaned when the lead actress was falsely accused of murdering her husband, and beamed with a smile when she was liberated. The audience was enchanted, groaning, clapping and heaving sighs of relief following Mr. Shin. He even added a few ad libs. When the ragged films on the projector suddenly stopped rolling, Mr. Shin said, “Thus the pitiless films stopped. But don’t despair, because a sequel is soon to follow.”
“Silent movies with talkers remind me of my good old days,” said Yang Jae-mo, an elderly gentleman in a beret. “I was a real movie buff back then, laughing and crying following movie talkers.” Mr. Yang said he would make his way to the second and last of Mr. Shin’s screenings on June 29, also at the museum.
Back in his apartment in Dapsimni, a plain neighborhood in northwestern Seoul, Mr. Shin needed a cup of cold water to soothe his throat after the hourlong performance. Then he wiped his projector clean and rolled the film up neatly. For more than six decades, he has been in the movies, from the time he ran away from home and his abusive stepmother at the age of 14. With nowhere to go, Mr. Shin ended up getting a job at a theater, sweeping and polishing the floors. With a broom in hand, Mr. Shin used to steal looks at the films, fascinated. Then one day, chance found him.
Kim Seon-dong, the theater’s big movie talker, never showed, apparently nursing a hangover. The night before, Mr. Kim had met a gisaeng, a Korean courtesan, and drank to his heart’s content. It was a popular strategy of theaters to invite out a rival’s movie talker for a night of excess, in hopes of making them miss work.
The projectionist called out: “Hey, you, little Shin, you’ve seen Mr. Kim performing every night, so you can do the job, right?”
“Of course, sir!” answered the 14-year-old. The movie that night was “Arirang” by Na Wun-gyu, the legendary director and independent movement activist. Throughout the showing, Mr. Shin was so nervous that he had no idea how he was doing. Only when he heard the thunderous roar of the clapping did Mr. Shin realize he had done the job right.
From then on, Mr. Kim made the boy his apprentice, taking him all over the country for his performances. Mr. Shin recalls this period as one of the happiest moments of his life.
One time in Wonsan, a city in the northwestern part of the peninsula, Mr. Shin had another chance to shine when Mr. Kim’s mother suddenly passed away. The movie was again “Arirang.” Everything went smoothly until the end, when the protagonist killed a puppet of the Japanese colonial government. Mr. Shin got carried away, and added “What’s wrong with punishing the traitor and puppet of the Japanese?” After the show, a Japanese police officer who had been watching in the front row, took Mr. Shin to jail. “For three days, I was beaten all over by the Japanese police, who asked me whose idea it was,” Mr. Shin said, “but it was my idea, not somebody else’s. And I’m still proud of it.”
By his 20s, Mr. Shin was a successful movie talker. He changed his name from Shin Byeong-gyun to Shin Chul, meaning “newly debuted.” “Every night after the screenings, I found rickshaws lined up, sent by a group of gisaeng saloons,” Mr. Shin says, breaking into a smile. He soon ran a theater of his own, featuring his brother as projectionist. Gathering quite a fortune, Mr. Shin started to collect silent films, amassing more than 150.
But the happiness did not last long. In the late 1950s, television first appeared. “Television networks back then almost every day aired movies with subtitles as well as talkies,” he said. “As a result, people turned into couch potatoes and gradually stopped traveling all the way to theaters.”
Then Mr. Shin’s theater in Jangchung-dong, central Seoul, caught fire. With nothing left, Mr. Shin was forced to sell his collection of films ― not to collectors, but for fashion. “Believe it or not, it was considered chic to have a roll of film folded on your straw hat back then,” he said. “A Prosecutor and a Teacher,” the film that Mr. Shin performed last Sunday, was the only one to survive, because Mr. Shin’s wife kept it safe to put in his casket when he dies. Having lost everything, Mr. Shin drove a taxi starting in 1978.
But his destiny was not ready to let him go. Mr. Shin in his yellow taxi driver uniform was one day taking some university students from Seoul Station to their school. On the way, he heard them complaining about a singer who broke his appointment to appear at a concert that they arranged. “What are we going to fill the one hour gap with? We’re dead,” the students murmured. Mr. Shin stepped in and said, “Don’t worry kids, I’ll be your savior.”
Mr. Shin that afternoon conquered the university campus with his charisma. Since then he has had his second run as a movie talker. His name became popular at small film festivals, and before long, he was invited to perform in cities like Los Angeles and Tokyo for elderly Koreans abroad.
To be a good movie talker, Mr. Shin said you should be good at telling lies. Back then, even the parts of a movie that should take place at night were filmed during the day. But when movie talkers said “in the still of the night,” despite the strong sunshine in the scene, people all believed it was the night.
Mr. Shin also said that quick wit was needed to tackle any emergency. “When movie talkers were No. 1, I got about twice as much pay as other staff members, like the projectionists,” he said. “They were sometimes so bitter that they rolled the film too fast or too slow. So I had to act accordingly, jumping to other scenes when it was too fast, or coming up with stories to add when it was too slow.”
Mr. Shin would like to raise a new generation of movie talkers. “In Japan, movie talkers are considered a cultural heritage to be protected,” he said. “But what are we going to do after I perish?” Then he resumed shining his antiquated projector, just in case somebody ever needs it.
by Chun Su-jin