Eddie Paradise: A Treatise on Korean Martial Arts: The Sequel

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Goddamn, sportsfans. With all the protests going on lately, it's been no wonder that no one's heard from me in a while. At present, I can only hope that this address can remain secure long enough for me to bang this out before the mob gets here and rips me limb from limb. The Korean Tourism Board was kind enough to pay for my last story but had no compunction about furnishing the rowdier elements with my whereabouts. In the past few turbulent weeks, I've been hounded, vilified and burned in effigy. Also, some very uncomplimentary things were said about my sweet, gray-haired mother. I will never attempt to defend my writing as I feel it is, on the whole, indefensible. What I will say is that I was more than willing to write a sequel to my previous article on the Korean martial arts and merely got distracted. This seeming snub to the male population of Korea was never intended and should not be seen as such. Crowds of men, women and children have been gathered outside my officetel with cup-encased candles demanding everything from my deportation to my being strapped to a board face down, covered with water and beaten with a wooden rod, old-school style. I can only hope that this poor piece will help the healing to begin.

The scene is anywhere in Seoul at past your bedtime. Any casual person walking around may not be aware of what is about to happen. A plastic chair scrapes on pavement and a voice is raised. The antiphonal section answers back slightly louder. All heads turn and prepare to bear witness, for tonight shall bear witness to the ancient, dramatic art that is Ajoshido (the Way of the Ajoshi). What one must bear in mind in any meditation on the subject of Ajoshido is that it has no relation to Ajummahdo. Whereas Ajummahdo is a fighting style created with the intent to kill, maim or punish, much like Abir and Bokator, the Way of the Ajoshi (meaning “married man”) finds itself more firmly rooted in theater.

The origins of Ajoshido are primarily identified as being descended from Edo-era kabuki theater which is known for its histrionic dialog, impenetrable plot, large gestures and precise movements. This assertion has for some years been under violent fire from both sides of the sea. Nonetheless, recent, authenticated scholarship posits that, along with the printing press, Chinese characters, the tea ceremony and the letter “F,” kabuki theater was actually a Korean invention. The Japanese are shown to have nicked it off of them in their typical snatchy-grabby way. An apology for having done so is still pending. Kabuki was then adapted in Korea into the Pansori and Talchum styles we know today. Out of these origins comes Ajoshido which bares and bears out its origins influences and internal conflict masterfully.

When a practitioner of the Way scrapes is chair against the pavement to stand (if somewhat shakily) it signals not only to his intended opponent but also to any onlookers that a performance is about to begin. It is analogous to dimming the lights in an enclosed theater, signifying a separation between our humdrum everyday reality and the greater reality of the stage. Without an audience to observe the scene swelling outside the local GS 25, the performance is for naught. Thus an exhibition of Ajoshido requires, nay, demands an audience. The uninitiated are drawn in thinking they will simply see a fight, the oldest spectacle of humankind from Og and Thag exchanging blows with their clubs, to the exploits of the ancient gladiators to Mr. Kim and Mr. Park having a go at each other. The uninformed audience member will come away with a deeper appreciation (in the original sense, of course) of the world around him and its discontents,now being confronted on the street where he lives.

Observe any motley troupe of actors readying themselves for their performance and you will be treated to the sight of all manner of odd behaviors. Some will be endlessly mouthing incoherent phrases, some shaking their limbs as if they are at a Pentecostal service and some will be playing a game known as “Zip Zap Zop” which has its origins as “Alpha Beta Gamma” outlined in Aristotle's Poetics. These actions, known as “warm-ups” are meant to relax the actor's mind, body and soul, that all might be blended harmoniously, resulting in a stellar performance. For the practitioner of the Way, the first, greatest and only warm-up is the consumption of soju, Korea's most popular liquor. It is the fuel that drives the covered wagon of our traveling players. It produces that state we call ecstasy from the Greek “ekstasis” or “displacement.” Under the influences of soju, one is not oneself, but rather a creature whipped and driven by the Muses. This displacement most commonly manifests itself in loud, slurred speech, expansive gestures and a weaving gait. The actors are granted powers beyond their normal capabilities in order to enhance the scene. Ajoshido players are trained in the art of consuming soju from their early teens and are tireless in their practice.

The opening verbal salvos of the fight serve to draw an audience into their world of wonder and illusion. Skills of parley are highly prized among Ajoshido masters. It is essential to construct such a speech that will inflame both one's opponent and the interest of the onlookers. The opponents must cast their remarks in such a way that they give each other something to build on, else the illusion is shattered and the audience is lost. Such a breach is considered shameful and must be avoided at all costs.If I may be so bold, I must contradict the Bard of Avon and insist that the play (or, in this case, the fight) is not the thing. The audience is presented with the reasons of the quarrel and are immediately baffled and here is the genius of Ajoshido. Our actors are using whatever pretense they can pluck out of the air in order to “scrape the chairs,” as they say in the business. It is improvisational work at its finest. The actors are encouraged to dig deep within themselves, their lives, relationships and even, for advanced students, personal grievances but it must never interfere with the pitch of the performance and that pitch is loud; the louder and flimsier, the better. The act of drawing an audience has never and will never be an act of subtlety; except possibly in France.

The audience, thus drawn in, are under the illusion that these two men are about to come to fisticuffs over some trivial matter that no reasonable person would raise an eyebrow over. Again, the false sense of security that our players have been working to bring about is so laid on. The quarrel is not the quarrel but rather the expression of the frustrations of the common man. This use of doubletalk is a permutation of the Korean pansori theatrical tradition where masked players would satirize the perfidies and vices of the upper classes with impunity. Now, the masks have turned into gossamer reasons for fighting. Trapped in a world that is shrinking and becoming rapidly more oppressive, Ajoshido is Marx's “heart of a heartless world.” One example of such a frustration finding its expression in the performance of Ajoshido is one of cultural disconnect. Perpend, the Seoul you see today is not the Seoul of a previous generation. Such areas as Kangnam, Apujeong and Jamsil were all areas of farmland before the 1980's. If you want to go back further than that, the Korean War split the country in two pained parts, leaving the South open to the influence of the rapidly accelerating American culture of prosperity of the 1950's. In the scramble to keep up and assimilate this disparate influence (call it cultural imperialism if you like, I'm not stopping you), many elements and nuances grew too quickly before they could be synthesized. This disconnect and its ensuing discontents are played out before our eyes.

In any performance worth its soju we have not only the two aggrieved parties but also one, sometimes, two other participants, called “blocking” or “intervening” characters. They act much like the Greek chorus who not only elaborate on the themes presented in opening remarks but also seek to advise and deter the combatants. These characters are forever doomed, for their efforts at acting as the higher voice(s) of reason seeking a peaceable solution are to no avail. With two blocking characters, the fighters are symbolically held apart by one man per fighter. The fighters then make a great show of struggling against their blocker's hold, symbolically wrestling ineffectually with the forces have brought them to such a state where they are compelled to work 14 hours a day for little reward, suffer tedium and be at the mercy of their bosses. At the introduction of the blocking characters, the performance is at a critical juncture. The audience is holding its breath in suspense. Will it finally come to blows, or will the soju wear off and the characters return to themselves again? It is at this moment of highest drama that the play can fall flat on its arse and rests solely with the blockers. They then deliver the conciliatory speeches, filled with fine feeling and aspirations to noble virtue for it must never be suspected by anyone that their job is actually to rev up the challengers for the violent climax of the evening.

In the case of a single blocking character, a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding drama is enacted. The single blocker has a nebulous role in the conflict in that while he ostentatiously seeks to part the two fighting characters, he is ultimately egging them on that much more by playing both sides against the middle. His representative role, unlike those of his twin-blocker counterparts is not so much the supposed voices of reason, but rather the duplicitous nature of morality. The one hand says honesty is the best policy, where the other says the gods favor those who increase their fortune and in doing so turns brother against brother. The role of the single blocker is also quite fluid as he can move from being peacemaker to combatant as he determines. For instance, Mr. Sung may be trying to part Mr. Kim and Mr. Park at 1:32, but then may turn around and sock Mr. Park (or, indeed Mr. Kim) in the nose at 1:43. If the blocking characters (single or double) know their business, the performance will be moved along from the opening remarks through the speeches on intervention to the fight itself.

The style of fighting for Ajoshido hold much in common with any kind of stage fighting in that it's loud and every move is telegraphed. The open-handed slap is the preferred method of striking as it is quite dramatic and resounding. Here we, the audience, see the working man getting slapped down by the Man. The working man knows the slap-down is coming and there's nothing he can do about it; he is resigned to his fate. Punching is not usually employed in professional productions as the blows usually go wild causing the combatants to stagger about, propelled by their own momentum. This sort of fight is often classified as “low farce” and generally looked down upon. National critical opinion is slowly coming around to appreciate this sort of comedy (as exemplified by Beckett with the caperings of Vladamir and Estragon) as a vehicle for self-mockery, a powerful form of satire indeed. Any other form of martial arts in an Ajoshido bout is strictly forbidden. All of these men have had intensive hand-to-hand combat training as part of their military service. It is felt that using this training would detract from the drama being enacted. The point of the fight is not winning, for the Man has already won. It is undeniable that accidents do happen and participants can get seriously injured if enough soju is involved. Since Ajoshido is, by and large, a hands-on type of martial art and so weapons are not common. Broken soju bottles have been known to be used and occasionally make palpable hits. This danger serves as a point of dramatic tension for both the combatants and the audience.

Should the performance spill bloodily over into reality, the drama is carried up a notch with insertion of deus ex policia. Here, we are offered a view of the somewhat skewed view of justice that our heroes are faced with every day of their lives. Under Korean law, the relative right or wrong of a case is irrelevant. The rule of law states that whoever is the more greatly injured party is the one in the right, period. In other words, to the victim go the spoils. The participants are called upon to give account of their actions in the most dramatic fashion possible with possible audience participation, effectively crumbling the fourth wall. The police are victims as well. As they are often younger than the combatants, they must give way in great part to the wishes of the oldest fighter who is allowed greater leeway in histrionic delivery. The rule of modern law itself operates bound to the Confucian model of respect for one's elders, regardless of their actions. The entire edifice is put on display, its gritty realities unblinkingly presented and the audience moves with pity and fear.

If you are coming to Seoul and wish to view a performance of Ajoshido, you should have no trouble as performances are held nightly throughout the city. The higher-end areas such as Jongno feature some of the most eloquent fighters. Should you be interested in a saltier, more hard-edged experience then look no further than the wilds of northern Seoul such as Suyu. A general rule is to hang out in areas with lots of convenience stores and keep your ears open for the sounds of scraping chairs. Please keep in mind that still photography, video, audio and film recording by patrons of any performance are prohibited. Over and out, up and at 'em.

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