South Korea unmasked
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South Korea unmasked

Despite accelerating into the future over recent decades, the modern nation of South Korea has taken great care to safeguard its cultural heritage. Among the oldest performances in Korea, mask rituals can be traced back to prehistoric times when they were the focal point of shamanistic ceremonies. They have evolved to become colourful, satirical dance dramas.

The transformation is startling. Even amid the prettiest of backdrops – a landscaped garden painted with a palette of warm autumnal colours – the petite young woman suddenly looks fearsome. Hyojin Lee is hidden behind the blood-red skin, bulging white eyes and straggly hair of a Korean mask.

This traditional headwear, known in Korean language as a “tal”, is designed to give its wearer an intimidating presence. It certainly works. There is no doubt Lee looks far more menacing now than she did five minutes ago while dressed in a cardigan sitting behind her office desk. Except that the original aim of tal was to banish evil spirits, rather than to provide a mild shock to a visiting Australian journalist.

“That was the old reason for the masks - to frighten spirits (away) from people or places,” Lee, 28, says as she peels off her tal and leads me through the garden of Korea House, one of Seoul’s chief cultural institutions where she works as the communications manager. “Now the masks are used for dances and performances, they’re not so serious.”

PROTECTING AND CELEBRATING KOREAN CULTURE ...


(2086 WORDS)


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