(Dir: Im Kwon-Taek, Starring Lee Hyo Jeong, Cho Seung-Woo, Kim Sung-Nyu, Lee Jung-Hun, Kim Hang-Yun, Kim Hak-Yong, Cho Sang-Hyun, Kim Myung-Hwan, Lee Hae-Ryong, Choi Ji-Youn, and Lee Hye-Eun)
Long before there were mass-produced novels, before television shows, before motion pictures, there was the ancient art of pansori. This Eastern art is still a little vague for Westerners. In fact, before seeing Chunhyang, the only knowledge I had of pansori was from reading about it -- a far cry from the actual intrigue of the presentation. In pansori, two men take a stage, one who sings a story, one tapping a drum for the beat. Koreans still embrace the art (like the way we Westerners still embrace our Shakespearean play performances in the original Elizabethan format), but it has never really made its way into this hemisphere.
The Korean film Chunhyang becomes the first real chance for the pansori to jump cultures. Through the international, interethnic art of motion pictures, the pansori can unfold in front of American audiences who would have never otherwise had a chance to see it in all its glory. The only problem is that we, a society that embraces every hackneyed and dependable story, can only look at the fairy tell told in Chunhyang as predictable melodrama. I would not be surprised if this same storyline was once used in a couple episodes of Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest.
According to Korean legend, there once was a haughty governor's son named Mongyong (Seung-Woo) who lived in the Korean province of Namwon. His father ran this area justly and was well liked by everyone. One day, while Mongyong was on holiday to study for an upcoming exam to prove his nobility, he caught sight of a young girl named Chunhyang (Hyo-Jeong). She was the daughter of a noble and a courtesan; the noble died soon after her conception and her mother ended her life as a courtesan to raise Chunhyang. Mongyong is smitten -- he is used to getting everything that he wants and has found something else to acquire.
Of course, Chunhyang resists, but soon falls prey to his beauty and the post-coital pillow talk they begin to have. Mongyong and Chunhyang marry in secret -- if his father knew, he would remove Mongyong from the inheritance. But just as they become close as husband and wife, Mongyong's father is sent to Seoul by the emperor and Mongyong is forced to follow, leaving Chunhyang behind.
With the promise of Mongyong's quick return, Chunhyang remains quiet of their relationship as he leaves Namwon. But all is not well when the new governor comes in. Byun Hakdo (Jung-Hun) is a very severe leader, taxing the residents for his birthday and calling for the beating of a guard because of one person's out-of-pocket shoutings. He is especially cruel when it comes to Chunhyang, whose beauty he has heard of along the road to Namwon. Since her mother was a courtesan, he believes that Chunhyang is forced by legacy to be one as well. He has heard the rumor that she is the wife of the former governor's son and that makes him desire her even more -- the virtuousness makes her all the more appealing, kind of like the Tarquinii rape of Lucretia in classical Rome.
Knowing nothing of what is going on in Namwon, Chunhyang must pray that Mongyong will return before Byun kills her for not sleeping with him. Though the situations are bit more adult, as is often the case with Eastern stories where societies embrace physical pleasure in the fairy tales, the plodding storyline is still like that of the Brothers Grimm. There is a moral of the story, an ending predictable from the beginning, and a realistic good guy yet completely evil bad guy -- we know this story in 17 different variations.
So, for what I can tell, the importance of this film is in its depiction of the pansori. The film begins and ends with the two men performing this story and occasionally leaves the action of the film to return to them -- this is a complete motion picture devoted to making the pansori accessible through film. The real problem is that the choice story is not something to make this art form come across as awe-inspiring. Occasionally we see the audience watching the pansori performance and get this gut feeling that our presence is completely inconsequential.
Director Im Kwon Taek tries his best to juggle the two weighty interests in the film. And, as Paul McCartney said "it did him in in the end." The pansori is not something to throw out with something as flat as this story. I can see this film working as a film unto itself and the pansori succeeding on screen with a story more along the lines of, say, Ran. Taek is talented with the camera, but even his terrific visual sense cannot revive this mismatch of forms.
The two leads are a couple of the worst actors I have seen in foreign films for some time. I have this weird feeling that I watched the Korean equivalents of Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Seung-Woo and Hyo-Jeong seem to have a nice visual presence, but their acting abilities are dismally poor.
Taek and cinematographer Jung Il Sung work some beautiful shots into this 122 minute film and keep the interest in their style even if the story is not remaining intriguing. Capturing night and day like a latter day Kurosawa, they set the mood for this piece of moody blues. I can only smile in their attempts, even if their product is flawed.
Rating: C / ** out of 4
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