The Sound of a Flower /도리화가 (2015) Review : Let's Just Sing!


A Period Piece Movie about a female singer in a world where only men are allowed to sing starring Ryoo Seung-Ryong and Bae Suzy.

This life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
---William Shakespeare

K-Trailer Talk Ep. 2: The Sound of a Flower /도리화가 (2015)

There have been many movies about artists whether they be singers, actors, or painters. These movies have been set in ancient Grease, 1930s Paris, and the dark ages. These artists have been male, female, and some were some other in-between. This is a tradition in cinema as the folks of the movie industry want to see themselves in those artists and the public wants to think they could have been one of those gifted even just in their dreams. Inevitably, all these movies are based on a single question.

“What is an Artist?”

Hello, this is Professor AKIA from chilly Korea. How are you? Please leave comments below. Today, I have the Korean movie “A Sound of a Flower /도리화가” (2015) to review. You mostly would be interesting in this movie because of Suzy.

“And she is fine! “
“Her acting is not bad also.”

“A Sound of a Flower” (2015) is a period piece movie about Korean folk / (Pan-so-ri) singers which is firmly drawing from this cinematic tradition of portraying artists on the silver screen. Thus, it also has to answer THE question.

“How does it do?”

Before I answer this question, let’s go over the English title of this Korean movie and its relationship with the original Korean one. This is something I do.

Title translation
As a title, “The Sound of a Flower” is not the best. It is a very crude use of words to describe something so beautiful. It reminds me of titles such as  “The Sound of Thunder.” It is not even a proper translation of the original title. The Korean movie is called “도리화가” which is the title of a famous traditional Pan-so-ri song. It is like giving the movie “Farinelli” (1994) a title like “la boheme.” It is using a cultural/artistic reference with just a small contextual relevance to the story as a title.

In English, this song title would be translated as “The song of peach and plum tree flowers.” You can see why I say that the English title is not great although it is somewhat more descriptive of the movie than the actual Korean title albeit in the figurative manner. The protagonist is a girl. Girls have been referred as flowers in literature. In fact, it is a cliché. Also, the girl protagonist is a singer. Songs are collection of sounds. So, the most literal expression of this title is “a girl sings” which is technically true. Well, it is at least better than “Ricki and the Flash” (2015)… Or is it? That Meryl Streep old female rocker movie’s title is based on a long tradition of campy rock movie titles after all.

“Anyone see Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)?”

So, I do tend to give it a pass.

The Plot
The plot of the movie goes like the following and is very loosely based on “historical” events. Personally, I think “Game of thrones” is more realistic but that is neither here nor there.  Set is the late 19th century, when the modern nation of Korea is still several decades away but before the Japanese walked in and politely asked to hand over the country, the Joseon Dynasty is on its last legs. Just image late 17th century Europe with a Traditional Korean coating.

“You can say that Joseon Dynasty stagnated for 200 years or so”

Far from the capital of the country, in a humble country district, lived an orphan servant girl who worked at the local brothel. Even in her situation, the girl had a dream. It was to be a singer, a Pan-so-ri singer. However, in the ridged Confucianism based hierarchical class system she lived in, that profession was only for men. It was still a socially menial profession for the low born but even being a low born male had its relative advantages. However, for the girl, her gender was not going to hold her back. Luckily a down-on-his-luck and somewhat famous old male master singer ran a local school for Pan-so-ri singers in the neighborhood.

This much older singer once dreamt of more but is now disillusioned because of the limits put upon him by society. So, he does find her enthusiasm refreshing. However, not enough to train her against social conventions.  Eventually, she disguises herself as a man and enters the school. It is one of those gender bending stories that you have to just go with. 

“I mean… who would every think Suzy was a man?”

A girl against the world
Once you strip away the whole period piece Korean trapping from the plot of the movie, it is a very familiar story. Females essentially crossdressing to do something that society doesn’t condone because of their gender is actually a well-worn story.  Barbra Streisand directed and acted in a movie with a similar setup called “Yentl” (1983). In that movie, the forbidden fruit was higher education for a female Jew set in early 20th century Poland.  Barbra Streisand did not play a singer even though she did sing in the movie as it was a musical after all.

In contrast, A Sound of a Flower /도리화가” (2015) cannot be called a musical even though it is about a female singer and her troop of male singers. It is more of a drama with musical performances which is rather common place for movies of this ilk. “Beyond the Lights” (2014) starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker falls into this category. “Love & Mercy” (2014) about the beach boys is another recent example. As I list these movies, I see that these movies do function as artist bio-pics a bit with the latter actually being one. It is really a common tradition in this genre. With dramas about musicians, there is only 2 approaches to making a movie. You have the bio-pic or the objective based “competition” type of movie where there is a defined finish line to cross.


With A Sound of a Flower (2015), it takes somewhat of a hybrid approach. It has both a “this is her life” vibe and a “competition” as an overarching objective to the story.

“Let’s go to the regionals!”

This objective motivates the old master singer to train the young girl and thus, propels the plot forward. If not, there is no emphasis to movie the story beyond the little town it started in. This type of hybrid approach is not unheard of. However, it is not an easy balance to handle which is why it is not a surprise that A Sound of a Flower (2015) fails pretty hard at it. I’ll go over how it failed a bit later.

If music be the food of love, play on.”
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Making love with William Shakespeare!
Was it William Shakespeare that made the subject of female gendering acceptable in European popular entertainment? He did write many stage plays with that element of which I think “Twelfth Night” is the most popular. A Sound of a Flower (2015) has nothing do with a Shakespeare play. Rather, it has a lot to do with a Hollywood move about William Shakespeare.

A Sound of a Flower (2015) is a movie made of 3.5 or 4 acts depending how you see it. During the first act, I was not really sure what the movie was going for other than the obvious. The first act is basically introducing the audience to the two leads and show how they end up training together for the competition. She wants to just sing but society doesn’t let her. He wants the recognition and to climb the social ladder. The second act follows with various training montages, of course.

“What would we do without montages?”

The girl is played by K-pop star Bae Suzy, age 21. The older master singer is played by 45 year old veteran actor Ryoo Seung-Ryong who starred in the horror movie “The Piper” (2015) this year.

I expected a typical “competition” type of movie where the girl achieves her dream even though there were some weird elements in the first act that didn’t not add up. Then, when the movie was in the middle of its second act, you see that it not fully focused in that direction. It somewhat drifts away from the girl’s dreams and veers into more of a love story between teacher and pupil. And yes, considering that the character of the girl seems to be around 15 while the old master looks to be in his mid 40s, this does come off as creepy a bit but I digress.

“Creepy… but romantic?”

When the elements of a period drama, struggling artists, a love story between a master and pupil are lined up in a neat row in front of your eyes, what movie comes to mind? Anyone remember “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes?

While it has been a while since I’ve seen that movie, in terms of its plot details the two movies share a lot. There is the female element, the teacher-pupil dynamic, the cross dressing, and “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) even has “objective” of putting a play in front of Queen Elizabeth I that is tied with some political intrigue I believe. A Sound of a Flower (2015) has political intrigue and a character who plays the function of the Queen. A lot of the element line up between “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and A Sound of a Flower (2015) but not exactly. It is not until A Sound of a Flower (2015) turns the art form of pan-so-ri into a theatrical musical play with several actor/singers that things really come into focus.

What is pan-so-ri?
Pan-so-ri is not a play… well not until some innovations were made combining western theatrical traditions in the early 20th century. Before I proceed with this review, I’ll have to go over the art form of pan-so-ri. Just know this is not my area of expertise.

You can conceptualize of pan-so-ri as a mix of tradition European traveling bard/ Minstrel‘s long form story telling via folk tunes and the beat focus of a two person rap team. You have the drummer who provides the beat and also acts as a chorus and narrator while the singer sings the tale. Think of Vegas lounge acts with a singer and a pianist duo. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., you get the gist of it. This is the traditional format of the art of pan-so-ri. While there have been innovations and experimentation throughout the 20th century, this is what has stuck as the classical form.

In terms of its social status, in modern Korea culture, it has a similar history as Shakespeare’s plays. It was originally a peasant level populist form of entertainment that became to be viewed as classical art in modern times. One should remember this. The subject of social class and the contrast of pan-so-ri’s statuses in the society is an important theme within the movie.

“But only as a side topic…”

Getting back to the movie, it confused my limited understanding of what pan-so-ri was by turning it into a theatrical musical play out of the blue without any establishment. This is not a great thing for a movie to do with its subject matter. Imagine you are watching a baseball movie and the players suddenly start doing jump shots.

“How would you process it?”

This may be less of a problem for those how have no idea what pan-so-ri is. But you many still be confused. And, in fact, this theatrical element of pan-so-ri is a huge plot point later on. So, it is difficult to totally ignore this liberty taken by the movie.

“Was this change necessary to the plot, you ask?”

I do not think so. You could work around it without too much problem. My guess is that it is just a “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) influence on the movie.

Falling out of love with Shakespeare!
In many ways, the obvious influence of “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) creates many problems for A Sound of a Flower (2015) that were not really inherent to the premise of the story. With less of emphasis on the romance between the soon to be student and teacher, the 1st act of this movie resembles another Barbra Streisand movie “A Star is Born” (1976) more. I know that there is a romance in that movie. But, it is more about the character than the romance alone. The shift in focus really only comes into the fray during the middle of the 2nd act.

Talking about the so called love birds, their relationship ends up being really creepy. In “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), Shakespeare was 29 and Viola was in her late teens at most considering she was planned to be wed off at the start of the movie. It was set in the Elizabethan era after all. You were considered a spinster once you aged beyond your teens. So, the couple separated by 12 years or so. However, since they were played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, this did not come off as being creepy. In contrast, the couple of A Sound of a Flower (2015) basically have a 30 year difference. In real life, the actors have a 25 year age gap between them. No matter how you slice it, this is creepy as they could be father and daughter. The fact that the girl is played by Bae Suzy who looks like she is in high school just exacerbate the creepy “Lolita” vibe you get off them even though the movie tries its best to make it come off all chaste and innocent.

“It is just creepy!”

The critical misstep
This morphing of “a girl who just wants to sing” story into “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) in the middle of the second act is THE critical mistake of the movie. For one, it basically nullifies the narrative function of the second act and thus the movie enters its third act without the narrative development it requires. In other words, the story doesn’t have a second act. This is why I mentioned that this movie had 3.5 or 4 acts. What would normally be considered the climactic third act ends up functioning like a second act and thus an additional rushed act is tacked on at the end. The consequence of this is that the overall narrative doesn’t work properly.

“The movie transitions from this uplifting, humorous, and spirited story to a broken “Romeo and Juliet” Analogue with a creepy couple”

Another consequence of this lack of a second act is that the movie fails to enter the third act with a proper antagonist or hurdle. If a movie was more character focused, it doesn’t always need these plot elements. You can use the internal plight of the characters alone. However,  A Sound of a Flower (2015) is not that kind of movie. This means that the movie had to conjure up an antagonist out of the blue. The solution to this problem was to make the movie even creepier in concept.

“Yes, this can happen!”

At the tail end up the movie, there is not only one but two creepy old men lusting over this 15 year old girl.

Considering the delicate nature of the romance, the movie needed a lot of deft touches to transcend the creepiness of the setup and make it tragically beautiful. However, the movie rushes through it because it wasted its second act which is a serious no-no for a movie that runs for only 109 minutes. Thus, not only does the turns in the plot feel very sharp and abrupt, but the romance feels forced in addition to being creepy and not in a weird interesting manner.

“Pedophilia can be an interesting subject in movies”
“Just saying”

In the valley of Totoro
Considering most of the issues with this movie originate in the second act, you would expect that I would dislike this part of the movie. However, I actually like it very much. It is beautifully shot with sweeping landscapes. To be honest, the cinematography of this movie is across the board beautiful especially in combination with the costumes and set designs. A Sound of a Flower (2015) is one good looking movie.

“What about the music you ask?”
“Of course, it is wonderful you say?”

The music of A Sound of a Flower (2015) is weird because of the stark contrast between the pan-so-ri songs being performed by the actors in various moments throughout the movie and the soundtrack that leans heavily on sweeping orchestra music. Just imagine a rap movie scored with classical movie orchestra music.

“Weird! Wouldn’t it be?”

It is not just any kind of orchestra music. For one, it seems to be a full orchestra playing. Second, the orchestra music is very familiar. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what the music was imitating. It seemed somewhat Hollywood but not totally. In recent years, you hear a lot of Korean movie soundtracks imitating older Hollywood scores. So, not totally out of the blue. It was only when the music was combined with the scenery of the second act that it hit me like rock. The music was very familiar to Joe Hisaishi’s scores which accompanied Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic movies such as “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) and “Princess Mononoke” (1997).

The director of A Sound of a Flower (2015) was basically trying to do a live action Hayao Miyazaki movie based on “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)! My mind exploded at that point. This was quite ambitious for a failed actor turned director on his second major theatrical movie. It could have worked if he had a better script but he cannot point his finger at someone else since he wrote the script also. Looking over this year’s major Korean movie releases, there are a lot of writer/directors on the board. Considering the scripts are the weakest element in most of these movies, they should seriously consider getting help from script doctors and punch up writers.

“Not sure Korean Cinema has them…”

In any case, The Sound of a Flower (2015) is a great looking movie and the second act is where it looks the best.

The K-Pop Star
The talent of veteran actor Ryoo Seung-Ryong was never in doubt. It was K-pop starlet Bae Suzy who was the big question mark of this movie’s cast. And I would have to say that she was not the weakest link among the notable actors attached to this movie. That honor goes to Kim Nam-Gil of this year’s “The Shameless” (2015). He plays the sudden third act villain. Even though he has been around the block several times, his range as an actor is limited. Usually, he just gets outshined by his cast mates. This turn is no different as he still gets outshined by both Ryoo Seung-Ryong  and Bae Suzy even though his character is meant to chew the cinerary. But not all the blame is on him since his role is just conceived awkwardly.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is our Ingénue!”

As a screen presence, Bae Suzy can stand toe to toe with Ryoo Seung-Ryong. When she shines, the silver screen cannot seem to contain all her emanating aura. Does this mean that she is a great actress?  Well, not really. This movie shows that she has talent but not skill yet. She is great in depicting raw emotion however the transitions between emotions are still rough. In many ways, she is far better being a young girl with a massive daddy complex pursuing her dreams than a more mature woman reaching out for her man. The fact that the latter part of the movie is very rush does not help with her performance. In any case, Bae Suzy is a joy to watch all throughout this movie and just divine in the earlier parts.

I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Historical truth
The portrayal of history in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) is nowhere near accurate. However, I do not think that it slandered major historical figures. Some may say different but at least Queen Elizabeth I didn’t come off as a pedophile creep.

“It is not Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” (2011)!”

The same cannot be said of how the villain of A Sound of a Flower (2015) is portrayed. The historical figure this character is based on is a controversial one. He was the old conservative darling meant to save the crumbling Joseon dynasty but who tragically failed. As a result, one’s opinion on this historical figure differs from person to person significantly depending on one’s political leanings.  This movie does not seem to have a kind word to say about this figure. It even goes for the low ball move by increasing the creep factor of the character. To makes things worse, the rush the movie is in during the latter parts of the story results in the character coming off as JUST a creep.

The art of Musical training
One of the more minor quibbles I have with this movie is regarding the training scenes. Since “Rocky” (1976) established the training montage, many movies used this as a mean of efficiently moving the character through plot points screen time wise. A Sound of a Flower (2015) does the same as it also has to train the protagonist for a competition. The problem with this is that how do you show the change in skill in regard to “singing?”

Unlike sports movies where you can efficiently show the development through specific milestones, the so called “singing” movies have a harder time. It is not easy for someone who is good at singing to portray both a talented but untrained singer and one at one’s peak. It is also not easy to show this on screen. Movies such as “Pitch Perfect” (2012) somewhat pull it off by emphasizing the evolution of the group over the individual. Since A Sound of a Flower (2015) is about the young female protagonist, it cannot really go that route. As a result, I couldn’t really see the difference between before the training montage and after.

“Yes, I am not an expert at pan-so-ri but isn’t people like me the main target of this movie?”

I know this is a minor issue and, if the movie was better executed later on, it would have been less of an issue. However, in the way the movie came out, it really bugs me.

Closing the Curtains
A Sound of a Flower (2015) is a movie about artists. This brings me back to the question I presented earlier. “Does is tell the audience what an artist is?” My answer would be no. I avoids even touching the question. Rather, it becomes about an ill developed romance that seems more like an example of some major daddy complex in play. It is creepy.

The fact that the movie shot the hell out of the ending actually makes the ending creepier if you think about it. The movie is going for tragically ethereal but it is just creepy and terribly unhealthy if you think about it. This is quite a shame for a movie that had such a soaring spirit in the beginning.

“It is a shame!”

The beautiful visuals, interesting premise, and, at minimum, interesting audio cannot save the movie from a lack of narrative focus. But this is the overall narrative of 2015 for Korean movies. Everything but the story is good.

I give the Korean movie “A Sound of a Flower /도리화가” (2015) a C grade.
Review Grade:

C or 4.5/10

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Created by Professor AKIA


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