Korean mask dance drama takes various forms and names (talchum, sandae noli, ogwangdae, talnori, yayu) in different parts of the Korean peninsula, but the characters and the performance patterns recur in comic scenes that play at festivals and in open-air markets.
These styles have roots in early shamanism and Buddhism, but were molded, as we know them today, by the low-status entertainers in the Yi dynasty (1392–1906) and were battered during Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945) and the Korean War (1950–53). The forms only emerged as protected national “intangible cultural properties” from the 1960s. in the 1970s–1980s these forms were revitalized as students took up the masks, drums, dances and the biting political satire of the genre into the democracy movement in political protests and guerilla theatre (madang geuk, open air theatre).
“Uri-geot” (our things)—a rejection of Western models—became the cry. Mask dance drama’s bright energy, pungmul percussion, and improvised humor that talked back to power, fit those times. playwrights borrowed aspects in new works from the 1980s and scholars delved into the forms’ history. By the 21st century masks became a regular part of tourist campaigns, tV commercials, and international performance tours. the bright masks and funny episodes came alive in song and dance, saying what needs to be said. the images give insight into the aesthetics and concerns of the “little guy” and share the vibrant spirit of Korea—past and present.