The Chinese, in their ancient stories, refer to the love of the Koreans for song and dance; but nothing of the oldest Korean theater has survived. Only from the time of the Three Kingdoms is there any news of summary entertainment organizations. Some representations are reported on the occasion of the harvest (p’algwan-hoe) and the ritual dance of the sword (kommŭ) perpetuated to this day, but which was performed with masks now no longer in use. Of the performances of the Koryŏ period (918-1392) there is no more comprehensive information, except for a collection of masked dramas, the Sandaeguk (Drama with mountain for stage), which handed down two previous dances also in masks, the ch ‘ŏyong-mu (dance ch’ŏyong) and the narye (exorcism ceremony), merged at the time with the sandae, consisting of a summary narrative script, interspersed with songs and dances. There is also news of the first puppet shows, which will later be entrusted with the satire of costume, especially on a religious level. Animals were also included among the various fixed types. But it was the two main characters that gave the name to the genre, known as Kkoktukgaksi (Woman or Puppet Bride) or Pak Ch’ŏmji norum (Show by the Pak censor). Towards the end of the Chosŏn era (1392-1910) a new form of spectacle was developed, the p’ansori, a sort of lyric drama, often satirical, but always inspired by traditional tales and legends, perhaps originating in the province of Jeonra (18th century), like the first declaimers: Ha Handam and Ch’ŏe Sondal. The dramatic dialogue was in fact entrusted to professional singers, often authors of music and lyrics, drawn from the most popular popular novels such as the Ch’unhyang-Jŏn (The story of Ch’unhyang). The musical accompaniment was almost exclusively entrusted to percussion instruments. The only author who exceptionally emerges from the general anonymity of low-level Korean theatrical production is Sin Chaehyo (1812-1884). Korea’s first permanent and national theater, the Wŏng gaksa, was built in Seoul in 1897. Until then, and even later, performances were staged on mobile stages, almost always outdoors. The executions continued, with an increasingly trivial spirit, of the sandae and haeso or pongsan t’al-ch’um and hahoe dances, also masked and with the same satirical intent against the bureaucracy and the clergy. Among the contemporary playwrights Im Hwa should be mentioned (1908-1953), author of works of social commitment with a Marxist background. As for the other arts, North Korean dramaturgy has also been oriented to the exaltation of the figure of the “eternal president”, with works with grandiose staging constantly present among the shows of the major theaters (one of these, Song of Glory, has a cast of 5000 people).
According to animalerts, the Korean musical tradition belongs to the Sino-Japanese family. The common characteristics with the musical culture of China, Japan and Viet Nam concern the musical theory, similarities between the instruments, the standard scale (which is the pentatonic one). Musical drama, a classical genre of Korean theater, is linked to the Chinese one; Similar to the Japanese koto is the silk-stringed zither called tai-caing, the most common instrument for solo performances. One of the most significant aspects of the Korean musical tradition was the presence of the court orchestra in the two typical formations, the hyang-ak (oboes, flutes, violas and drums) and the tang-ak (gong, lithophones, mouth organs). The polyphony developed by these orchestras is similar to that of the gamelan (the Javanese or Balinese orchestra). Alongside the cultured tradition, the popular one is based on similar characters, but presents greater simplicity and, compared to Chinese popular music, reflects a more archaic phase; it has undergone a rapid evolution in South Korea (where jazz has also penetrated with the Americans), while in the North the preservation of the traditional style is favored. Also in the musical field there are a series of compositions created to celebrate the greatness of the leader Kim-Il-Sung, such as Song of General Kim Il Sung and Long Life and Good Health to the Leader.
The third century of Japanese domination influenced the Korean film production of the time. However, of the ca. two hundred films made in the period 1910-45, at least thirty, belonging to the decade 1926-36, ideologically and culturally influenced by the association of proletarian artists and writers, maintained national characteristics. Of many of them was director Na Ung-Kyu (1901-1932), political activist and follower of Soviet filmmakers, who in 1926 with the film Arirhang (name of a hill) offered the first example of autonomous art. In 1942 Korean filmmakers refused to work further for the Japanese, who responded by first closing, then dismantling their studios. The division of the country into two areas was consequently followed by the formation of two distinct cinemas. That of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is to be remembered first of all for some extraordinarily lyrical documentaries, made in the war period, but its greatest merit is the national authenticity, pursued with an intense organizational and cultural evolution after the war. It grew more and more titles (The song of friendship, My native land, The sacred war, The history of the fortress of Sado, Love in the village, The legend of Shim Chung, The Tumangan River, etc.) and names (Kon Hong Sik, Min Dek Sik, Kim Rak Sup, Chin Jong Sup, Cheng San Ine); presented and awarded several times at the Karlovy Vary and Moscow festivals, however, it remained unknown to Western audiences, except for a few titles such as, for example, the co-production with France Morabong (1960), by J.-C. Bonnardot, or the selection sent to the Sanremo art film exhibition in 1973 (Choe Hak Sin’s family, The fate of a member of the self-defense corps, The flower seller) or Mission without return, by Choe Un Hui, presented in Nantes in 1984. A propaganda tool par excellence, cinema perhaps more than other media has played a predominant role in the education of the North Korean people from 1953 onwards. As a sign of reconciliation, the 2005 animated film Wanghu Sim Cheong was the first co-production with South Korea.