Chunhyang
review by Elias Savada, 23 March 2001

South Korean films have been about as popular among mainstream U.S. filmgoers as an American-built television set found over in that neck of the world. We just haven't seen all that many at the local art house. One of the strongest economies in East Asia, it also has a thriving film industry that rarely gets exposed to those of us on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Lies (Gojitmal), Nowhere to Hide (Injong sajong polkot opta), and Chunhyang all had North American commercial premieres late last year in New York City, and the latter is now helping warm seats at D.C.'s Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge. It relieves neck strain that Visions' screens are higher than most theaters, making for easier reading of the subtitles. Thanks to distributor Lot 47 Films, a taste of the Orient has landed here for a limited layover.

As for director Im Kwon Taek, it hasn't been easy crossing the ocean. For the most part critics and film festivals attendees have been the only lucky ones to catch up with a small fraction of his work. Those family-owned Korean markets that dot American suburbia undoubtedly offer up more of his product off their video shelves than we realize, yet lacking one key ingredient -- subtitles. Im, Korea's most highly regarded director, has had a prodigious directorial career, dating back to his 1962 debut feature Farewell to the Duman River. At age sixty-four he had been producing two to three films a year; Chunhyang is his ninety-sixth film in nearly four decades of filmmaking, yet only the second that I know of that has had theatrical outings in the United States. The other title, Sopyonje (1993), enjoyed at two-week engagement in Washington but probably was little seen outside of major metropolitan markets. His output has trickled lately -- this is only his fourth feature in the last seven years -- but you can see the hand of a master at work in this single movie. And often in single frames.

Im has fashioned, through screenwriter Kim Myoung Kon, the latest retelling of an old Korean legend of teen romance and class struggles, the cultural equivalent of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet retold with the angst (and music) as West Side Story. It is story that has been told many times before in Korean cinema, but this fable has also been embedded into other art forms, including novel, poem, opera, play, animation, television, soap opera, and p'ansori, a blending of music and ballad that enraptures audiences with energetic one-man storytelling. This performance art is heightened by emotionally forceful rhythms of an accompanying drummer, an integral part of the duet as it is he who navigates the pace of the tale. Im has placed this traditional operatic technique as an overlay for his modern cinematic tableau of bold colors, breath-taking landscapes, and impeccable acting. P'ansori, often inspired by folk tales, was used in the 1970s and 1980s by rebellious students to mock existing political agendas. Here, Im cushions his adaptation around a live performance by Cho Sang Hyun, a p'ansori Pavarotti whose incantations are often heard over the soundtrack, and his percussionist partner Myung Hwan Kim.

Im undertook a nationwide search for his young stars, seeking youngsters he felt exuded the particular undimpled fifteen-year-old beauty he desired. Lee Hyo Jung and Cho Seung Woo thus became Chunhyang (which translates as "spring fragrance"), the delicate daughter of a courtesan, and Mongryong Lee, the privileged son of a Namwon district governor. They marry in secret, their forbidden upper/lower caste union known only to the noble son's devoted and somewhat comic servant Pangja (Kim Hak Yong), Chunhyang's fierce-hearted mother and proud former courtesan Wolmae (Kim Sung Nyu, also well known as a female p'ansori) and her family's staff. A year passes and the boys' father is appointed to a high position in Seoul and the love-obsessed couple must part or face class embarrassment. Her Yin descends to a life of sadness and loneliness, while his Yang forces himself into three years of intense studies for a difficult test that might result in a well-heeled position. He more than succeeds, but is immune to the fact that a new governor back in Namwon province has learned of the undisclosed marriage and smugly pursues Chunhyang. He terrorizes the citizens and in particular the young wife, who defiantly bows to agonizing torture rather than become the spiteful leader's courtesan. Joan of Arc is an obvious role model here. Righteousness and love win out in the end.

As Korea's largest filmed production ever, employing over 8,000 extras and 12,000 costumes over a four-month shooting schedule, the effort recaptured in painstaking historical accuracy (enhanced with some fully-integrated CGI work) the reality of eighteenth-century Korea. The photography by Jung Il Sung (whose camerawork is as steady, deliberate, and determined as the cast) often overwhelms the action, imbuing golden hues, rolling fogs, and intoxicating images, but these become luscious memories, savored long after leaving the theater. The first sighting of Chunhyang catches her on a giant swing draped from a large tree, he angelic motions sweeping higher and higher, her dress billowing about her attractive frame. The ecstasy and intensity of the story, characters, and production molds Chuhnyang into a majestic masterpiece. If you're looking for that next taste of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this dish awaits your viewing pleasure.

Written and
Directed by:

Im Kown Taek

Starring:
Lee Hyo Jung
Cho Seung Woo
Kim Sung Nyu
Lee Jung Hun
Kim Hak Yong
Lee Hae Eun
Choi Jin Young
Hong Kyung Yeun

Written by:
Kim Myoung Kon

Rated:
Not Rated
This film has not 
yet been rated.

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