Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The magical land of mystery

When we first arrived in Korea, I must admit, I knew very little of the Korean culture.  Some interesting facts: their culture has survived for 5000 years; they have preserved their own language from invasions of Russia, China, and Japan; and they have preserved the stories and traditions from their ancient clans.  

So we woke up with the sun and jumped on a bus, bundled up in warm clothes, as the cold was setting in.  We then traveled east, toward the rising sun, watching the land move from the rolling mountains of the west to the more rugged mountains of the east.  We even met a Korean man who spoke English with an Australian accent.  

When we arrived in Andong, we had to find a hotel.  We looked up how to say "cheap hotel" on our phone's dictionary and told a taxi driver.  He sped across Andong to the hotel district, and dropped us off.  We then found the magic of the "love motel."  The magic was a good cheap room, with free extra bedding to support 4 people.  And all of this accentuated by a red light...

We finally made our way to the festival.  It is what one would assume from a festival: fried foods, tchotchkes. 
 But the greatest part of this was getting to see the various faces that cultures had created to turn a normal person into a mythical character.    We even had the opportunity to create our own masks, but we didn't yet understand the meaning behind them.

As we toured the festival, we kept stumbling into "Alice in Wonderland" type creations.  

We stumbled through a field of mushrooms.

Ran into a warrior calling out to the moon...

And were attacked by large "go fish" fish.

As we emerged from the mysterious creations of Korea, we were immediately dragged into a street parade.  Forgetting any concept of difference between people, language, religion, etc., we were grabbed band pulled into the dance, jumping, leaping, spinning, and whirling with all of the people in the parade.

The dancing continued, with people in masks, costumes, and even directing puppets.  The excitement was phenomenal.  And it wasn't for any holiday, but only for a cultural festival.  Exploding in lights and confetti, the entire festival was covered in flying color, spinning color, and even the color of musical sound. 

But we still did not fully understand why Andong celebrated the masks.  So we went to the Hahoe mask dance and play.  It was a play whose goal was to equalize the working class and the aristocrats of Ancient Korea.  It begins with two acts: the butcher and the bull (the butcher is attacked by the bull, but kills it, cuts out its heart and testicles), and the hunched weaving woman (bemoaning her work).  

The play then takes a sharp turn, presenting a perverse monk who stalks an aristocratic woman on a walk.  The trickster character constantly dances on the outside, commenting on the hypocrisy of the monk, and the ludeness of the aristocrats.

The play ends with a scholar and an aristocrat trying to outwit each other.  They both hold long pipes that require servants to light them (showing their wealth).  The trickster constantly poses questions to them, and watches them debate each other.  In the end, the butcher comes in with the bull testicles, and offers them to the scholar and aristocrat, promising that the testicles will bring strength and sexual prowess.  The two fight over them, but the old woman wins them, waving them in the faces of the aristocrats.  With this final act, all of the characters are equalized.  

Thus, the masks allow a anonymity for the people to become equal actors, and to equalize the roles in society.  

Finally, it all ended with the magic of the dance of the King of Masks.  This King of Masks changes masks throughout the dance, but no one ever sees the change.  He can become whoever he wants with the wave of a hand.  Changing from red, to green, to orange, to white, to black, to his normal face, and then back again.

The night ended with a dance from an Israeli dance troop who brought inanimate metal and plastic to life, making it look as though these mundane work materials had a life of their own, becoming snakes, people, jellyfish, and like children playing with toys.  It all ended with a metallic dance to Bohemian Rhapsody.  
And then we returned to the land of the mundane reality.  However, we will always the escape into the masks.


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