SULLAE 술래 — Jesse Chun
by Sasha Cordingley
C Magazine would like to congratulate Sasha Cordingley on winning the 2021 C New Critics Award, and Kalina Nedelcheva on being named the runner-up. Now in its 12th consecutive year, this program gives C Magazine the opportunity to identify, support, and promote the work of promising new writers, who often become regular contributors. C sincerely thanks all those who applied, as well as the jurors of this year’s award: Miriam Jordan-Haladyn, Sophie Le-Phat Ho, and Maya Wilson-Sanchez. Measures were taken to ensure that the identity of entrants remained unknown to adjudicators.
In the second half of 2020 I started a job at a global home furnishing store fulfilling people’s online orders. As I placed rice-paper lampshades and fake sheepskin carpets into my basket, another worker—a white, middle-aged man—came up to me and asked me if I was Vietnamese. “I’m Chinese,” I replied. He continued to explain how my eyes had exposed my foreign nature, and that my English was much better than his wife’s: “She’s Vietnamese and has lived here for 25 years, but she refuses to learn the language.” I didn’t think much of this encounter. Like so many of the racist asides I have endured throughout my life, I just thought it was weird.
That evening I received an email from MOCA Toronto. Shift Key, the gallery’s online platform guest curated by Daisy Desrosiers, was showing Jesse Chun’s SULLAE 술래 (2020). At just over six-minutes long, the single-channel film roots itself in the precolonial Korean women’s harvest and fertility dance, gang gang sullae 강강술래. The ritual is performed under the rippled glow of a full moon on Chuseok 추석, with the women of the village gathering hands and forming a circle, singing and dancing to a narrative of hardship and frustration. gang gang sullae 강강술래offers itself as a possibility for liberation, a release which reveals itself as a thunderous song. Tired from the day’s odd—but not unusual—encounter, I slumped in my chair and pressed play.
“SHHH.” A female’s breathy shush marks the beginning of the video. She continues to articulate varying phonemes in English and the Korean alphabet known as Hangeul 한글—stretching some combinations out and sharply accentuating others. “Kuh. Pa. Ba. Tttttt.” Sounds overlap, interweave, then collide. The speech’s rhythm accelerates, vowels and consonants crashing into and against each other, and any distinction that may have existed between the two languages starts to collapse. Certain combinations of letters are repeated—they are pitched up and down and gradually morph into the reverberating roll of what sounds like a GarageBand snare. Audio satiation settles in as the ceaseless echoing of speech dispels language of its meaning, and a storm of white noise crescendoes as pixelated archival excerpts of gang gang sullae 강강술래 erupt on screen. Faceless women pulse forward, their orbit oscillating the silhouette of the full moon and their hanbok 한복 trailing behind them; a stick ferociously beats a wooden barrel drum; the women bellow a unified cry, their energy rupturing the calm night sky. Their rumbling voices are curtailed by the fragmented imagery of an unmarked mountainous landscape surrounded by sea: the water is tranquil; the mountain’s edges are scattered with irregular peaks and dips; a soft light is muffled by passing clouds—the topography is estranged but recognizable in texture.
Elongated and condensed O’s flare up throughout the film. These O’s—compressed, sideways, and fused—fail to provide a singular interpretation: in Korean it is ieungㅇ, in English O /o/. It is the numerical and global 0, or, when merged, the figure eight of infinity. It is a symbol which refuses the rigidity of strict linguistic coherence, vast in its possibilities. Written language is further exhausted as severed letters from the English and Korean alphabets swell out of the edges of the frame. At such a scale these letters are purely ornamental: they appear as bold rectangular strokes, curved contours, and parallel lines. They are a semiotics devoid of history and meaning.
The film rarely permits moments of clarity. As soon as I think I have clearly captured an image, word, or sound, it disintegrates—sonic cues decay into meaninglessness; letters I recognize become harder to enunciate; articulations I repeat daily transform into estranged soundscapes. Chun terms this process of prying open, picking apart, and emptying language and its associations “unlanguaging.” Inspired by Rey Chow’s writings on the politics of post-colonial language in relation to the non-native speaker and the contemporary phenomenon of “Global English,” Chun’s unlanguaging interrupts the use of English as a tool toward nationalist consciousness and colonial ownership by dispossessing its aural, sonic, and visual frameworks. Disconnected from its violent positioning as a privileged vehicle which has served to provide both agency and currency within a globalized economy, Chun reveals a language which, at its core, is hollow and empty—like the centre of the circles that materialize throughout the film.
Near the end of SULLAE 술래, I thought of that man’s wife. I wondered what it might mean to deny the unspoken requirement that migrants flawlessly acquire a nation’s primary language as a mandatory condition for full assimilation. A foolish demand considering the slippery, porous nature of language—owned by no one and unconsciously blemished by memories, associations, and lived experiences which inevitably flicker through the process of individual speech. This blending into the national fabric extends beyond the sonic. It is steeped in the corporeal as it materializes in our surface features, our psyches, our traditions.
Perhaps Chun’s refusal of a comprehensible English throughout SULLAE 술래 is illustrative of an alternative way of perceiving the Vietnamese woman’s unwillingness to speak English. Like the yells of the women circling under the moon during gang gang sullae 강강술래, Chun proposes a method of communication that shuns structures of linguistic dominance. This new system, based on untranslatability, mistranslation, and illegibility, makes space for the obscure and nonsensical, decentring the English language and rejecting the subordination of racial difference. It calls for the unproductive and unidentifiable, for the furious dins which rupture our present as grunts, screams, howls, and roars, as we sing and dance under the illuminating warmth of the full moon.