Chunhyang Movie Review

Due in part to a dense shroud of regulatory policy, the Korean film industry finds few viewers in the West. One of a mere handful of directors to break through this barrier in recent years is Im Kwon Taek (Mandala, Ticket). The latest in a line of more than 100 films for Im (Korean family names come before given names), Chunhyang is a vivid retelling of the classic Korean tale of an 18th century love that withstands and defines a culture.

A musical of sorts, Chunhyang emerges as a rare pairing of film with the ancient Korean operatic tradition of pansori. As such, the picture opens on a black, dimly lighted stage as the pansori singer begins the tale, blending quickly into the moment of action.

Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the devoted son of a provincial governor, asks his servant to show him the sights of the region and gets more than he bargained for when he spies the beautiful Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung). The daughter of a courtesan, Chunhyang is a forbidden fruit that Mongryong can't resist. No sooner are the two married than Mongryong must depart for Seoul. But Chunhyang, being little more than a courtesan herself, must stay behind or cost her husband his chance at a noble title.

As Mongryong leaves, a new governor comes to town and learns of the much-desired Chunhyang. But, as a devoted wife, she refuses the new governor's advances and is sentenced to death. The remainder of the picture concerns, of course, the return of Mongryong and the dishing out of justice to the corrupt governor.

In itself, the story behind Chunhyang is no more intriguing than that of Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers come together against all odds, yadda yadda yadda. What surprised this critic was the stream of feminist commentary surrounding this picture, lauding itself for its own vision of strength in womanhood. If anything, however, Im's vision of Chunhyang as a character is simply that of a devoted woman who knows her place. Far from an uplifting break from traditionally misogynistic views of femininity, what we're really being offered here is a modern re-hashing of an essentially Confucian idea that women can achieve greatness only through self-sacrifice in the name of their husbands.

Simultaneously, though, it is a richly experimental movie, demonstrating (as Mandala did before it) the vast cultural offerings of Korean cinema. Cunningly acted and breathtakingly filmed (except for the pansori scenes, which appear to have been shot by a drunk with a Handicam), Chunhyang takes bold risks with point of view and narrative style that might never have come from any director other than Im Kwon Taek.

Everybody Chunhyang tonight.

Comments

Chunhyang Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 2001

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