Keeping up the habit of going to as many festivals as we can reasonably fit into our schedules (which has worked out to around one a season so far), Amy and I took a bus to the broad valleys of Andong (안동, in the centre-east of South Korea) for the beginning of the 2008 International Mask Dance Festival. This has grown out of the popularity and cultural significance of the local performances, and now showcases most of Korea’s traditional mask dances as well as a selection of international ones. We arrived in plenty of time for the opening ceremony, and caught a small slice of the action the following day due to having other commitments back in Seoul.
Upon arrival at the festival site (having been thoroughly misdirected by the banners – all of them had “Mask Festival” written on them in large letters, but were actually pointing towards sponsors back in the city centre), we first had to run the gauntlet of hawkers selling the usual festival essentials – snack food, blankets, tools, weapons, household appliances, alternative therapy services and so on (none of those were made up). Once onto the site proper, the commercial offerings turned to more practical items such as food, alcohol and local products to take back as gifts.
I had just enough time to sniff out a pumpkin pancake before the opening ceremony started, but the lack of a stage or tiered seating and presence of throngs of people jostling for a glimpse of the performers meant that we could only see the occasional banner waving above peoples’ heads. We took immediate action, and walked round the side of the floor area to where all the other acts in the ceremony were queuing up to take part. The queue meandered all through the festival site, eventually spilling out onto the road, and we saw several unfamiliar international troupes, some poorly-conceptualised mascots, more traditional gong- and drum-bashing groups than we could count and a flock of scantily-clad young women from Boryeong sneakily advertising the mud festival (thankfully not until next summer) and shivering in the chill autumn air.
Once we’d taken a look at all the performers (including a group from China who were sharing the same floor as us in our motel), we turned our attention to the stalls and were quickly attracted by free soju shots from a guy selling local liquor. While were were examining the production process display, we got chatting to a European couple who were on holiday, hit if off, repaired to a tent restaurant for some dinner (the opening ceremony being the only thing on that evening), wandered back into the city for something to drink, ran into another European couple (who had been accidentally following the others around on their route through Korea), had some drinks, got adopted by a Korean street bar owner and were entertained until the wee hours by him and his friends (including one highly questionable guy who insisted he was with the mafia).
The following morning, we wandered back into the festival a little tired and set about seeing what was viewable within the time we had. Our re-perusal of the stalls and other miscellaneous attractions was hampered by virtually every Korean person with a camera pausing to take pictures of us (there’s some kind of law over here that prevents people from taking photographs of Koreans without their express permission, but it apparently doesn’t apply to foreigners) – clearly, we were a far more exotic attraction than all the mask dancing they’d ostensibly come here to see. We dived into a global mask exhibit to shake the pursuit off, and then met up with our companions from the previous evening for some lunch. On the way back to the festival, we stumbled upon a stage in the middle of the city which was showing Andong’s traditional mask dance – Hahoe Pyolshin-Gut T’al-Nori, an ancient folk play praying for abundant rain and harvest whilst satirising the aristocracy and religious types. We stayed for the opening acts (a farmer killing a cow for magical internal organs, the lamentation of an old woman and a lecherous monk trying his luck with a young woman), and then had to scoot back to Seoul and leave the countryside and traditional culture behind for a little while.