During my sojourns, works and photo shoots in South Korea I got to deepen my knowledge of Korean traditional theater and its masks. I have always loved the theater of masks since i was a child … since I first saw the italian “commedia dell’arte”.
The Hahoe Maskdance Drama traditionally features eight madangs, (acts or perhaps skits), which incorporate music and dancing, but also slapstick and satire. It is told from the perspective of the Joseon Dynasty’s commoner class, which offers a great opportunity to learn about history as told by powerless peasants.
Rather than portraying supernatural beings, almost all of the masks depict a class of Joseon society embodied in human — albeit grotesque — form, most of which are called out on their hypocrisy. They were originally used in shamanistic ceremonies that lambasted the empowered in Joseon society. The plays were full of sex, violence, and nongak (farmers’ music), and the content is not too far removed from modern-day celebrity tabloid scandals.
The Hahoe masks themselves are carved from wood, unlike most other Korean masks which were made of paper or gourds which were immediately burned after use. Hahoe masks, in contrast, were considered sacred and were intended for reuse. They were stored in a box, and many performers before taking it out would offer a sacrifice. It is said that, due to their unique design, when an actor wearing a mask smiles, the mask smiles too, and when the actor gets angry, the mask gets angry too.
This is probably the best-known of the Hahoe masks, a symbol which is often used to represent Andong or even Korea. It has a wide nose with big nostrils and gentle, flowing lines for the eyes and eyebrows, indicating a generous yet arrogant character. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Yangban mask is the detached jaw, held together by a piece of string at each end. It allows the performer to change facial expressions: looking up creates a broad smile as the lower jaw separates, and bowing one’s head forms a menacing grimace as the upper and lower lips are pressed together.
I’ve heard the Yangban mask likened to a Guy Fawkes mask (the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions). Actually that’s not an unfair comparison, at least in the intentions behind the masks. Actually the Yangban mask represents a twisted, grotesque reflection of Joseon’s aristocratic class.
Like any feudalistic society, the commoners held a great deal of resentment toward the Yangban, and found it difficult to approach the Yangban to address problems that needed solving. Thus, using this mock Yangban figure was an easy way to engage with and also tear down the Yangban’s high position. The main message of the maskdance was for the ruling class to reconsider its role in society.
The Bune mask is famous alongside the Yangban mask, often depicted side by side in folk artwork. Sometimes they are compared to the Comedy and Tragedy masks of English theatre, although neither Yangban nor Bune represent such abstract ideas.
Bune is depicted with an ovular face, small mouth, high nose, and makeup, and the mask represents the standards of classical beauty in Joseon society. The mask has at times in its history represented a widow, a concubine, a gisaeng (Korean version of the Japanese geisha), or a mistress to either the Yangban or Seonbi.
In the maskdance play, Bune is flirtatious with both Yangban and Seonbi, never saying a word but massaging Seonbi’s shoulders and picking lice from Yangban’s hair. They compete for her attentions, driving themselves to more absurd actions and statements.
The maskdance performance seems to suggest the hypocricy in her character, which mimics chastity but barely conceals wanton sexuality.