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With: Lee Hyo-jung, Cho Seung-woo, Kim Sung-nyu, Lee Jung-hun
Written by: Kim Myoung-kon
Directed by: Im Kwon-taek
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 120
Date: 01/29/2000

Chunhyang (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Singing and Drumming

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Korea's Im Kwon-taek has been making films for four decades and washonored three years ago at the San Francisco International Film Festivalwith the Akira Kurosawa lifetime achievement award. And here, 97 filmslater, is Chunhyang, the first of his films to receive a theatricaldistribution deal in the United States (though some of his other films,such as Fly High Run Far (1992), Sopyonje (1993) and The TaebeckMountains (1994), have shown sporadically at festivals andretrospectives).

The reason U.S. distributors passed over Im's first 96 films is that they were under the impression audiences wouldn't care. Now we are in the middle of a kind of Asian Invasion, partially thanks to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but also to the years of buildup and praise for films from Asia.

The story of Chunhyang is a centuries-old Romeo and Juliet-like tale of young lovers. The governor's son, Mongryong (Cho Seung-woo), falls in love with the lovely Chunhyang (Lee Hyo-jung) while out on a day trip, and marries her without his father's knowledge. With his high standing, Mongryong is expected to take a test that will enable him to obtain a lofty career position. Since Chunhyang is of a lower caste, their marriage could jeopardize his career. Unfortunately, Mongryong's father gets appointed to a position in Seoul, and he is forced to move away from his new bride. Even worse, the new governor attempts to make Chunhyang a courtesan, but she refuses, staying faithful to her husband. The new governor jails her and sentences her to death.

Ironically, Chunhyang may be an odd choice to introduce audiences to Im's films. It utilizes an ancient storytelling tradition called pansori, which involves a singer and a drummer. It's a beautiful form but it also requires a lot of over-explaining. The film is both shown and told to us. The pansori singer's voice punctuates the scenes every now and then, sounding like a combination of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Big Bopper and Terence Trent D'Arby. The singer sometimes even performs the actors' dialogue for them. Occasionally, Im cuts back to the singer performing on a stage for a modern audience, members of which get whipped up by the story and begin clapping and dancing in the aisles. American movie audiences may not have the patience to deal with this kind of storytelling. But viewers who stay until the end will find themselves greatly rewarded.

The effect of showing the contemporary audience lends a kind of perspective to the material. It reminds me of Louis Malle's brilliant Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), in which Wallace Shawn (directed by Andre Gregory) performs Chekov's Uncle Vanya for the camera inside a crumbling theater. Rather than staging it in one place (the stage itself was unusable), the cast performed in modern day dress, using the lobby and other locations. The actors drink coffee from paper cups and traffic noises can be heard through the walls. Before our eyes, the 100-year-old play magically becomes contemporary. The same happens to the tale of Chunhyang. Astute viewers, if the mood strikes them, can even read allegories of modern American presidents into the film.

Im tells his story beautifully, with eye-goggling colors and extraordinary depth and clarity. And though the story is old and slightly corny, Im imbues it with the utmost sincerity and emotional truth. We find that it not only deserves telling through the pansori, but also through filmmaking. I sincerely hope that audiences will give Chunhyang the attention it deserves.

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