Film Narrator, a Voice that Testifies to the Times

Film Narrators in Silent Era as Narrators in Our Times

By Korean Film Archive

Jihoon Suk (Researcher, the Korea Record Archive)

The Live Performance of Turning Point of the Youngsters Accompanying a Live Band and an on-Stage Narrator at the Korean Film Archive (2008)Korean Film Archive

Story of a Wanderer (Narr. Kim Yeong- Hwan)

“As time passes, records remain, and life leaves footprints as we walk, so there must be the footprint of film narrator. But it is neither a record nor a source of pride. Although it is only unstable, what process has the film narrator taken until today, and how many footprints have it left? As one of the film narrators myself, I would like to look back on the path I have walked with the fans all over the country.”

A performance photo of "Turning Point of the Youngsters" (2008) by Korean Film ArchiveKorean Film Archive

Film Narrator as ‘Showman’

From the introduction of motion pictures to Korea in the early 20th century, and until talkies became common in the mid-1930s, it was the film narrators who held the key to film screenings and box office success. Around 1910, as permanent movie theaters such as Dansungsa, Umigwan, and Joseon Theater appeared, professional narrators who explains movies, or “film narrator,” also took their place as one of the scenes in the movie theater.

Chosun Theater Weekly No. 3 (1929-09-23) by Chosun TheaterKorean Film Archive

Shall we go to the Joseon Theater one evening in 1929? The program opens at 7:00 pm and closes at 11:00. For about 4 hours, one or two movie screenings and various stage performances ranging from pansori (traditional Korean musical storytelling) to jazz dance are held together. In particular, a one-act play containing the contents of the movie, called the ‘prologue’ or ‘prelude,’ was screened right before the screening of the film.

Dansung Weekly No. 307/308 (1929-04-01) by DansungsaKorean Film Archive

The screening of the films was conducted with two or three film narrators taking turns, and giving commentary on each day of the week. If you look at the brochure of "Danseong Weekly" in 1929, you can see that the four narrators, including U Jeong-sik, Choe Byeong-ryong, Seo Sang-pil, and Kim Deok-gyeong, are listed.’ It seems that these four narrators took turns narrating Beau Geste (Herbert Brenon, 1926) and Four Sons (John Ford, 1928).

The Inside of the Motion Picture Theater in the Joseon Exhibition (1929-10-01)Korean Film Archive

If you look inside the motion picture booth in Oct. 1929, you can see how films were screened at that time. Orchestra played film scores in the orchestra seat located between the stage and the audience seats, and the narrator gave commentary in the narrator's seat located on the right side of the stage. A speaker for commentary was installed on the left side of the stage. In addition to the narrator, singers often appeared on stage and sang the theme song.

Kim Deok-hyeong (1914-06-09) by Maeil Shinbo, June 9, 1949, p.3.Korean Film Archive

Film Narrators in Joseon

Notable among the early narrators who mainly gave commentary to the silent motion pictures, are Kim Deok-gyeong, Seo Sang-ho, and Lee Han-gyeong. These were ‘the first known narrators.’ Also, Song Byeong-un, nicknamed “Fiddler Song”, was also active at this time. While film narrators settled down as an essential element of film screening in the 1910s, they hit their 'heydays' in the 1920s. Major theaters had started hiring theater-exclusive narrators.

Kim Yeong-Hwan, Kim Jo-SeongKorean Film Archive

During this period, film narrators reigned as ‘stars’ working at Dansungsa and Joseon Theater. One of them, Kim Yeong-hwan, worked as a director, lyricist, and composer under the name of 'Kimg Seo-jung' as well as a film narrator. By the end of the 1920s, the name of narrators began to be included in movie advertisements, and pictures of them were often included in newspapers, magazines, movie and theater advertisements.

SP album of Fooled by Love, Hurt by Money (1939) by Columbia RecordKorean Film Archive

Emergence of Recording Media

Most of the Joseon films produced at the Japanese colonial perion have been lost, so it is not easy to confirm their existence at present. However, there are ‘voices’ that have revived this lost time. For about 15 years from 1926 to the end of the 1930s, famous narrators recorded their movie commentary on gramophone records. We cannot watch Joseon's silent movies, but we can listen to them thanks to these records.

Altar for a Tutelary Deity Film Still (1939) by Bang Han-junKorean Film Archive

Altar For A Tutelary Deity (Narr. Seo Sang- Pil)

Early gramophone record, mostly produced in the 1890s and 1950s, called SP record, had speeds of 78 revolutions per minute. The diameter was 10 inches or 12 inches. The 10-inch-record could hold about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, and the 12-inch-record could hold about 5 minutes each per side. Therefore, it was not possible to include the entire movie commentary, and most of them were 'highlight recordings' that recorded only the main scenes.

The Story of Shim Cheong Film Still (1925) by Lee Gyeong-sonKorean Film Archive

The Story of Shim Ceong (Kim Yeong-hwan, Bok Hye-Suk, Park Rok-Ju)

The first film commentary record was produced in 1926. Until 1942, there had been a total of 101 records (202 sides) which recorded parts of film commentary and film scenes. Most of the records are explanations of foreign films. 33 records on 24 films (66 sides) are either film commentaries or cinematic dramas of Joseon films. The number of Joseon feature films produced before liberation was 166, so the existing records confirm 15 percent of those films.

Fallen Blossoms On A Stream Film Still (1927) by Lee Gu-yeongKorean Film Archive

Emergence of Cinematic Dramas

While the narrators recorded movie narrations through gramophone records, new record content appeared in line with the unique properties of the auditory medium of gramophone records, that is, the media for ‘auditory enjoyment.’ Thus, cinematic dramas appeared. Film narrator was in charge of commentary and lines for supporting roles, and actors who appeared in actual movies or popular actors of the time appeared to play the main roles.

Eternal Love of Su-Il and Sun-Ae Film Still (1929) by Lee Gyeong-sonKorean Film Archive

Eternal Love of Su-Il and Sun-Ae (Kim Yeong-hwan, Bok Hye-Suk, Seo Wol-Yeong)

The first records of cinematic dramas were Flowers Fall and Water Flows (narration: Kim Yeong-hwan, role of Chun-hong: Bok Hye-suk) released by Victor Records in Japan in Dec. 1928, and Everlasting Dream (narration: Kim Yeong-hwan, role of Lee Su-il: Seo Wol-yeong, role of Sim Sun-ae: Bok Hye-suk) released by Columbia, Japan in Feb. 1929. Especially in the case of Everlasting Dream, its popularity continued until 1941, a decade after its release.

Record of Unspeakable Circumstance (1931)Korean Film Archive

Unspeakable Circumstances (Na Un-Kyoo, Seok Geum-seong, Sim Yeong)

By the 1930s, each record label produced several types of cinematic dramas. Among them, Na Woon-gyu's Unspeakable Circumstances (1931) was the case whose screenplay was completed but not made into an actual film. Some of them were completely created anew to fit the characteristics of the medium called 'record.'

Newspaper Articles on the Story of Chun-Hyang (1935)Korean Film Archive

A Film Narrator Loses His Voice

The heyday of the film narrators collapsed with the advent of talkies in the early 1930s. Most of the major theaters at the time, purchased equipment for the screening of talkies, and the position of the film narrators was greatly diminished. In the Joseon film industry, the situation was a little different because silent films were still made for a while. However, with the Korea's first talkie The Story of Chun-hyang in 1935, even this demand disappeared.

An Newspaper Obituary of Seo Sang-hoKorean Film Archive

Seo Sang-ho, a first-generation film narrator, was indispensable to theater box offices to the extent that he was called the “Dollar Box.” However, he ended up being homeless and was found dead in the restroom of Umigwan in Aug. 12, 1938, a tragic symbol of the downfall of film narrators. By the late 1930s, many narrators switched jobs, such as comic storytelling and radio voice acting, or turned to other jobs, such as theater manageer and distributor.

Seong Dong-HoKorean Film Archive

Even after that, the lifeline of film narrator had barely retained its life. However, their performances could be encountered occasionally in temporary theaters or theaters in the countryside. By the 1960s, the film narrators' performances had completely disappeared, and with the death of Seong Dong-ho in 1985, who was known as the ‘last film narrator’ among professional narrators active during the Japanese colonial era, their lineage was completely cut off.

A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher Newspaper Ad.Korean Film Archive

However, the last embers did remain. Sin Chul (real name Shin Byeong-gyun, 1928~2015) picked up the art of storytelling by watching others’ performances in the 1940s, a period of decline in film commentary. Sin started to perform film commentary of films such as A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher in the early 1980s. He was in the media spotlight starting the mid-1980s. Until the late 2000s, he continued his performances.

SP Album of the Movie Commentary of a Soldier of Fortune (1931) by Columbia RecordKorean Film Archive

The Voice that Recorded the Times

In addition, as research on gramophone records has been active since the 1990s, various film commentary records recorded during Japanese colonial era started to be discovered in earnest. Based on these, film narrator's storytelling arts have been reproduced and passed on. There are also ongoing attempts to discover and restore gramophone records. KOFA found out the record of Punguna (1926), and restored it to a clearer sound in 2022.

Punguna is a work written, directed, starring, and edited by director Na Woon-gyu, who was recognized for his talent through the representative national film, Arirang. Punguna depicts the sorrow of the colonial people through the wanderer Nicolai Park, but the film has been lost. Therefore, this record is one of the few ways to imagine the film.

Kim Yeong-hwan, Yun Hyeok, Lee Alice, and Park Rok-JuKorean Film Archive

Gramophone records breathe life into forgotten films by reviving lost Joseon films. At the center of it was the pilot of silent movies, or the film narrator. This exhibition has looked back on the rise and fall of the film narrators. I hope this exhibition helped you remember the lost time of Korean films again and provided you an opportunity to listen the films of the time, even if only with your ears.

Credits: Story

Planning and Production by Korean Film Archive
Curation by Jihoon Suk (Researcher, the Korea Record Archive)
Production Arranged by Lee Ji-youn·Song Eun-ji
Edit Configuration by Agnes Park·Ko Sang-sok
Translation by Hwang Miyojo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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