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A review of "Talking with Haenyeo"Artspace C had a special program on May 14 in connection with "SeaWomen"
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승인 2014.05.19  16:36:23
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▲ An image from "Talking with Haenyeo" at Artspace C on May 14. Photo by Tamara Lang

Last Friday, I sat on a gray floor mat in Artspace C watching Mikhail Karikis’ stirring film portrayal of the haenyeo, or the female divers of Jeju Island. This week, I found myself back at Artspace C, where that culture left the screen and entered the room in the form of Younghee Kim, Yoensu Oh, and Younghee Yang, three haenyeo from the sea village of Daepyeong-ri, come to view their depiction in Karikis’ work and to answer any questions the film might prompt.

The self-professed centerpiece of Karakis’ work is the vocal production of the haenyeo community. But Wednesday night, those sounds filled the gallery from two sides: from the screen at the front of the room, and from the three women in orange jackets on a bench along the back wall.

When the film showed haenyeo entering choppy water from a boat, Kim, Oh, and Yang murmured appreciatively. When a haenyeo bent over with her back to the screen, they laughed. When the gallery echoed with the sounds of the “sumbisori,” or the high-pitched whistles haenyeo release upon surfacing, they whistled along. And when the film cut to a shot of tide pools bright with green algae, they sighed with something close to nostalgia. When the women in the film sang, they clapped along.

After the film had ended, Sunyoung Hong from the Jeju Tourism Association asked the haenyeo about their response to the film. Kim, Oh, and Yang seemed awed. “We felt like we were just catching seafood, but when you watch [the film] it is really nice. We haven’t seen this kind of video before.”

“When Mikhail came it was really cold in Korea, and when he wanted to come to the water with us we said, please go away, go away, it is too cold, but he just kept following us… As soon as we came out of the sea we gave him the first chance to take a shower. Finally, we got this great result.”

Their village of Daepyeong-ri is one of 44 sea villages in Seogwipo City, and it is home to 48 working haenyeo.

“She is the oldest,” they said, pointing to one of three watercolor portraits painted by Mikhail Karikis in the space of a breath. “She is 84 years old.”

Yang, the youngest of the three haenyeo present, told of how she came to be a haenyeo. “My grandmother made me wear the traditional suit,” she said, gesturing to a dark canvas suit displayed on the far wall. “I started [working as a haenyeo] when I was 15, till yesterday.”

Yang, Oh, and Kim all agreed that they were drawn to the haenyeo lifestyle for financial reasons.

When asked about how their lives have changed over the years they have been diving, all agreed that the greatest changes were the performances that are now a part of their village’s life.

“Twice a week, every night, even very old haenyeo come out and sing, and ask the Jeju government for support. The younger villagers made a band for us, so it has become an even bigger performance event.”

After some prompting, Kim, Oh, and Yang treated the audience to two songs. The first, the rowing song of the haenyeo, features in SeaWomen.

Of the second song, they said, “the lyrics are very sad…[we say there is] a kind of box and a song is inside, and we always carry that box in our mind, because diving is a dangerous kind of work and every moment there is some threat of death.”

“We all have that kind of moment,” they said. “[And then there is] the breath.” Exhaling sharply, Oh lifted her breath in the sumbisori that served as the inspiration for SeaWomen.

Speaking to the haenyeo students in the audience, Kim, Oh and Yang told of the advantages to life as a haenyeo. “There is no retirement. There is a lot of freedom. Wherever we want to go, we go, whatever we don’t want to do, we don’t do.”

“Whenever we go to the sea, our mind becomes very peaceful. Whenever we have problems with husband, or children, [and] we go to the sea, our mind becomes very peaceful. We can just focus on catching something.”

For those of us who cannot spend our workdays in the sea, Mikhail Karikis has brought that freedom to Artspace C.

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