Based on an 18th century folk song, the Korean period drama “Chunhyang” tells a familiar story even for non-Koreans: a forbidden love between two people separated by class, family and duty; a secret wedding; the meddling of unwanted interlopers; and finally, a heroic reunion. So universal are these themes that, had it been put together as a standard film, without the trappings of ancient Korean dress and setting, “Chunhyang” would be just another forgettable addition to the genre of Asian period films.
Prolific director Im Kwon-taek (“The General’s Son”) takes a fairly unusual route by presenting the story within the framework of the Korean performance art form of Pansori. Pansori is a type of verbal storytelling, Korean Opera if you will, where a singer, known as a Soriggun, tells a story accompanied by a percussionist, known as a Gosu. Such performances, which can last up to eight hours, incorporate expressive singing, stylized speech and a repertory of narratives upon which the singer improvises.
“Chunhyang” the movie begins with the Soriggun alone against a black background as he begins reciting the tale of Chunhyang, before the film fades into the colorful countryside of 18th century Korea . Here, we are introduced to the title character, Chunhyang (Hyo-jeong Lee), the young daughter of a retired courtesan who lives a fairly carefree life on the outskirts of a quiet village. One day she comes under the gaze of Mongryong (Seung-woo Cho), the studious son of the local governor, and it is love at first sight. After a clumsy but brief courtship the two marry, deciding to keep their inter-class nuptials a secret from the rest of the town.
But fate intervenes, as it always does in these stories, when Mongryong’s father is transferred to Seoul and a new, ruthless governor takes over the province. Learning that Chunhyang is the daughter of a courtesan, and thus by law a courtesan herself, the smitten new governor goes out of his way to secure Chunhyang’s services for himself. It’s from here on that the film begins to wander, as the overstuffed plot starts to undo at the seams. Ruminations on loneliness and longing are unevenly interspersed with angry rhetoric about class-consciousness and female empowerment, while government intrigue and corruption give way to impromptu cloak and dagger antics.
In “Chunhyang”, the local government is vividly painted as a brutal and corrupt regime bent on enslaving its constituents and subverting the King’s rule. The new governor in particular is more caricature than character, a villain so demented he uses an execution as the entertainment for a government summit. The ending is also contrived and over the top, as Mongryong triumphantly returns in a “Robin Hood”-style finale.
Narrative shortcomings notwithstanding, “Chunhyang” is an eyeful. The colorful country setting is complimented by equally colorful costumes and beautiful cinematography. Im has the film jump back and forth liberally between the story’s bucolic setting and the staid contemporary auditorium where the Pansori performance is being given. The singer even shouts out to and receives feedback from the captivated audience as they clap in unison and dance in the aisles, the give and take between audience and musician very reminiscent of American Gospel performances.
Im’s incorporation of the Pansori into the film imbues “Chunhyang” with an unusual texture which keeps the viewer engaged. The Soriggun’s guttural vocal stylings, which often border on caterwauling, can be difficult to get used to, especially if the viewer is unfamiliar with Eastern styles of music. But the technique greatly emphasizes the emotions being presented by the actors, adding depth to what is an otherwise lightweight and overly familiar story.
While nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times before, the themes explored in “Chunhyang” are nonetheless compelling. Coupled with the attractive cast, extravagant costumes and polarizing storytelling technique, “Chunhyang” manages to transcend its ho-hum foundation to become a rather unique and worthwhile bit of filmmaking, one of many from the already legendary career of Im Kwon-taek.
Kwon-taek Im (director) / Sang-hyun Cho (story), Hye-yun Kang, Myung-gon Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Hyo-jeong Lee …. Chunhyang Sung
Seung-woo Cho …. Mongryong Lee
Sung-nyu Kim …. Wolmae
Hak-young Kim …. Pangja
Jung-hun Lee …. Gov. Byun Hakdo
Ji-youn Choi …. Gov. Lee
Hae-eun Lee …. Hyangdan