Chunhyang (2000) is a pre-modern folk tale in a post-modern structure that comes as a surprise to contemporary audiences.
Chunhyang (2000) by South Korea’s prolific director Mr. Im Kwon Taek reminds the audiences of the grandeur of Rembrandt’s paintings. It is a pre-modern folk tale in a post-modern structure that comes as a surprise to contemporary audiences. The ravishingly romantic epic is an opulent masterwork of story telling set on a regal scale. The artistic style and élan of Im Kwon Taek together with avant-garde cinematographic techniques made this film redefine the genre of contemporary film making. The film comes as a visual delight to its audiences who would be impressed by the dazzling costumes, gorgeous sets and location shots of beautiful landscapes. Inundated in classic romanticism, with slender touches of bathetic emotionalism, Chunhyang is a well framed modern fairytale which talks about true love, its tribulations and the victory of good over evil. Such creative display of art may seem odd and risible in the beginning, but once the viewers get used to the idiosyncrasies of the director, he will delve deeply into the extraordinary primitivism that the film portrays. Im Kwon Taek mingles the sounds and spirits of P’ansori, a traditional Korean form of vocal art incorporating elements of ancient operatic forms of music, to tell a myth, a fable of youthful adoration that crosses forbidden class boundaries. Music runs through the veins of the movie interwoven with dialogues by the characters. The somber yet unique musical technique reverberates as if in a merger of eternal and temporal. Such creative display of art transpires the screen with universal themes of love and fidelity.
The raconteur, Im Kwon Taek, is a mature and talented director, and Chunhyang is probably his masterpiece. Throughout his historic career as a filmmaker, Im has continued to explore the rich traditional shades of Korean culture in his movies. Chunhyang is not only well crafted and vibrantly picturized, but also mostly original in screenplay and presentation – this gives the audience a wide angle view of a new kind of film making, far aloof from commercial cinematic experience. However, Im’s approach in Chunhyang is complicated. A nebulous layer of ambiguity overcasts the film as Im delves deep into traditional folklores. The tale itself can be linked to medieval romances and has definite Shakespearean overtones. The fairytale like characters and the drama they visualize bring home memories of the Canterbury Tales and Romeo and Juliet. The contrast, this film portrays, in between the upper and lower social class is familiar to Shakespeare readers. The director perhaps has planned to embark on a gargantuan mission of lifting something simple and soporific in terms of romanticism and transferring it to something sublime and sober. Thus he uses P’ansori and music to fulfill his mission. Im successfully brings to life both visually and aurally the late 18th century Korea, during the Chonsun Dynasty.
Chunhyang is a passionate love epic of love and revenge where Mong-nyong, a rich and privileged son of a governor who devotes himself to the love of Chunhyang, the pulchritudinous, witty and young daughter of a courtesan. What follows is an idealistic saga where the lovers are seared by contemporary feudal society customs. The lovers secretly tie the connubial knot and pledge eternal devotion to each other. Mong-nyong keeps the marriage a secret, since it was considered abasement for a man of high social status like Mong-nyong, to marry Chunhyang, a daughter of a courtesan. The plot brings to life the ancient society’s restrictions against true love. Such ideas have previously been seen in many Hollywood movies like Moulin Rouge, Pretty Woman etc. The story takes a dramatic turn when Mong-nyong leaves Chunhyang for three years to complete his education and a new and oppressive governor arrives, and he demands the favors of Chunhyang. According to ancient custom, Chunhyang, who is a daughter of a courtesan, is required to make herself available, but Chunhyang refuses and asserts that her love is only for her husband. As a result, Chunhyang is mutilated, imprisoned and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Mong-nyong returns and hears of Chunhyang’s plight and is blinded by revenge.
The presence of Cho Sang-hyun, the P’ansori singer, at the center of the film is a magic move. The exquisite visuals elucidating the musical splendor bring to life the traditional Korean tale of love. A portion of the movie is spent cutting back and forth from the story in progress to a modern-day performance of a singer telling this tale in the traditional style. The whole film is actually a story within a story. The narrative is a classical drama where a singer, accompanied by a drummer performs before a theatrical audience. The audience sees these two characters; the whole drama is acted out for the film audience. We see the audience anticipating, laughing and weeping along with the twists and turns of Chunhyang as he tells it. The gorgeous setting, the ostentatious atmosphere, uncommon vitality together with breathtaking scenery and exotic lovemaking scenes provide Chunhyang a rare vivaciousness. It will open a new gauntlet for the audiences of the world who might be interested in seeing a rare display of traditional and modern aspects of film making mingled in one complete movie.
Im has also used Pa’nsori in his other great film Sopvonje. However, in Chunhyang, P’ansori is a protagonist in itself because the director tells the story through musical notes of P’ansori. The singer’s inflections, tonal qualities and depth, sound not only interesting, but also enthralling. The whole movie is like watching a concert and the experience opens our eyes to anew kind of film making that is original, absorbing, and compelling. But after a while the music may lack its initial aura and start sounding comatose. Despite the fabulous vocal skills of the artist it seems that the music overcasts actual acting and drama the movie portrays.
Im is a perfectionist in the sense he showers great attention to the photography, and presentation of this grand narrative. The interest in flora and fauna adds a facet of significance to the story. The beautiful snowcapped mountains, the endearing mystical atmosphere, and the romantic softness of the air lift the spirits. The charismatic acting of the protagonists Lee Hyo Jung as Chunhyang and Cho Seung Woo do justice to Im Kwon Taek’s stately creation. Chunhyang is an endearing, eloquent film, a romantic song of love.
From the social angle, the film has a great role to play in bringing to light the ancient feudal customs that sought to discriminate against men and women based on class and social status. The scene of Chunhyang’s public beating is a disturbing evidence of vitriolic feudal rule which Im deftly pictured. I found Im’s vision of Chunhyang as a character is plainly that of a stereotyped dedicated wife who knows her place. Im doesn’t show his woman as a paladin of female causes by giving her a heartening break from traditionally misogynistic views of femininity. Rather he presents a retrograded rhetorical version of the traditional picture of an ideal Confucian woman – delicate, self-sacrificing, and true to her husband. Even though the movie is richly experimental, the role of women is not one where the director has experimented with.
The characters in the movie appear to have flaws in their persona. Cinderella like Chunhyang has nothing unique in her character even though she is a witty, educated and confident woman. Her character, initially headstrong and stubborn turns to a marionette as the movie progresses. Mong-nyong lacks charms and aura. He is also obstinate, and medieval in all aspects. His character loses his romantic hero like splendor when he is forced to accept his father’s will and leaves for Seoul for education leaving his bride alone. His absence in the climactic moments in the movie makes Mong-nyong’s character fade to oblivion. I would have been happy if Im had used some of his cutting-edge technological skills to fine tune the storyline. The presence of Mong-nyongs mugging, stupid servant for comical intension will remind audiences of Shakespeare’s Launcelot Gobbo in the Merchant of Venice and Touchstone in As You Like It.
Chunhyang can boast about its fabulous filmatography and picturesque details, but it certainly lacks in acting skills. The mechanical repertoire seems immature and dull – it incarcerates the audiences’ sense of connecting with the characters and the problems they are facing in the movie. The movie lacks in freedom since the actors are mere puppets of the storyteller; and act out according to the narrator’s words. The overuse of musical drama somewhat mars the glory of an otherwise great directorial work by Im Kwon Taek. The unfamiliar sounds of p’ansori and over eloquent poetry in a visual presentation may be disturbing to the audience who are used to prototype exaggerations of modern themes in movies. The Miltonic presentation will definitely come as an adventure or a shock to those of us who are used to movies like Star Wars. However, the movie will receive its deserved accolade when it is seen through the eye of an artist. In the end, the gospel performance sets an example of true art, art that seeks to destroy cultural and linguistic boundaries by presenting the wondrous music of love and devotion.
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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