Chunhyang Movie Review
Peeking out from underneath the awkward, spoken word/village minstrel/performance art presentation of "Chunhyang" is a deeply moving romantic epic struggling to get out.
An ancient Korean fable about the forbidden love between a provincial governor's noble son and the beautiful daughter of a former courtesan, the story told in this film is a timeless one of passion and tragedy.
But prolific Korean director Im Kwon Taek (he's made over 90 films in less than 40 years) holds the viewer at arm's length by telling the story within the distracting framework of a pansori performance -- a traditional, rigidly stylized narrative stage show that involves a storyteller singing and reciting the tale to an accompanying drumbeat.
The film opens with a long title sequence of this modern middle-aged fellow on a theater stage, regaling an audience with the establishing details of the story like some kind of bellowing, chanting, dancing, antediluvian Spalding Gray. As he spins his yarn, Im cuts away to 18th Century Korea and the narrator introduces us to Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the handsome son of the new governor of a remote farming region.
An impulsive young man, Mongryong becomes instantly and consumingly enamored upon seeing lovely Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung) swinging on a swing in the forest. Well-read and something of an unknowing coquette, Chunhyang has been coveted by many noblemen, but because it is Mongryong's prerogative to take whatever wife he chooses, these two are married over the virginal girl's reservations, and in secret because Mongryong knows his father would object to the match.
These early scenes of the actual story establish a strong bond between the characters and the viewer, which is repeatedly broken to cut back to the narrator's stage performance. Even more distracting is the fact that Im begins adding shots of the audience that is watching this storyteller which, for all practical purposes, renders the movie audience an irrelevant third party.
Such interruptions sometimes substitute for what should be important scenes in the love story. We're told that Chunhyang slowly warms to her new husband, but Im breaks away on the wedding night for more stage-bound yada-yada by his intrusive bard, so we don't see it. He then returns to the real story for some cute post-coital frolicking, robbing the audience of witnessing the girl's emotional transformation.
Beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant, when the film sticks to the story, it's absolutely engrossing. The tale turns tragic when Mongryong is forced to return to Seoul and leave Chunhyang behind. A cruel new governor, having heard of Chunhyang's beauty, summons her to be his concubine. When she refuses -- daring even to call this governor a rapist for asking her to ignore her marital vows -- he has her tortured, but she remains faithful that her husband will come to save her.
The highly contrived, fairytale outcome of this storyline -- complete with heroes traveling incognito and waiting for the most dramatic (not the most logical) moment to reveal themselves -- is another point of contention.
But through the immaculate performances of the two leads, the heart of "Chunhyang" ekes out a minor victory over the peculiar and distancing presentation -- which is at best a cultural barrier for Western audiences, and at worst an arthouse gimmick gone awry.