Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (IEWA).
Chunhyang is a centuries old Korean romantic folktale originally told by travelling minstrels according to the traditional pansori form of opera. Don’t think of Italian opera; this type involves a chanting, wailing Chuck Berry-esque narrative singer (Soriggun) paired with a drummer (Gosu) and an enthusiastically involved audience. This form of narrative storytelling has preserved the older legends and archetypes, forms of knowledge, wisdom and values, transmitting at least an awareness of them to successive generations.
Even in the midst of its Westernization, the technologically “wired” Korean youth, fond mainly of the flash and strobe of video games, action films, animation, techno, hip hop, and pop ballads, is deliberately given early, healthy, repeated doses from an art form which remains a repository of ancestral culture.
Nearly every Korean knows the story of Chunhyang by heart. It has been produced as radio, television, film, animation, and is continually performed live in schools and on stages – as much as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. Ironically therfore, the film is less of a hit among Korean audiences than it was at Cannes and is among Western ones. In the words of one of my Korean students, it isn’t considered “fresh”, and these days there is an ever increasing demand for new styles, interests, and tastes pouring into the once isolated country.
Another reason for the sometimes disapproving reception this particular Chunhyang-jeon (jeon=contemporized, dyeon=original) in Korea, is that it combines enough sexuality to earn an R-rating with a true-to-the-original casting of a very young actor/actress pair to play its historically 15-year-old lovers. It’s uncommon to present the tale with nude sexuality and more common to cast adults in the leading roles. But the nationally and now internationally famous Im Kwon-Taek (this is his 97th film) has been experimenting with various combinations of traditional stories, contemporary and traditional presentations, Buddhist and Confucianist themes, and pansori forms.
The film is set during the Chosun period, an era of particular interest for a people currently showing heightened interest in conserving at least their root values and folk traditions in a country, for example, now leading the world in broadband internet connections (10 per 100 people as compared with 4/100 in Canada and 3/100 in the US). Indeed more than one television drama set during the same general time period is currently running in Korea. My household is keeping up with one of them, Myung Sung Hwang-hu, with VHS tapes being sent to Korean video stores in the U.S. shortly after airing back home.
The plot of Chunhyang concerns the noble son of a local governor, Master Lee Mongryong (Cho Seung-woo), in the midst of his scholarly pursuits, preparing for the (Confucian) examination in Seoul. He is smitten upon seeing Chunhyang (Lee Hyo-jung), the daughter of a courtesan – lowest station of all. The boy fails to win Chunhyang by arrogant demand. Having learned that she writes poetry, he woos her with gentle poetry of his own. The ensuing poetic dialogue is represented by the narrator/Soriggun chanting the exchange of verses, the boy ever seeking to compare Chunhyang to a laundry list of beautiful objects, she ever refusing the comparisons — refusing too (the film subtly suggests) their social implications. “Chunhyang is this, Chunhyang is that…” Chunhyang does not want to be a butterfly or a flower. What she wants means refusing to reduce love to an analogy of possession at the expense of freedom, authority at the expense of dignity. As Chunhyang riddles it, “The wild geese desire the sea, a crab desires its hole, and a butterfly desires a flower.” Mongryong mistakes her to mean she desires to be pursued. She becomes his wife on one condition: He swears an oath, written in thick ink upon the silk of her skirt, with the sun and moon as witnesses, to love her forever as sun to moon. In short, to never leave.
Early in the film, the narrator poses the question, “Can unswerving loyalty not exist?” This test begins as Mongryong, for any hope of future or livelihood, must keep his marriage to Chunhyang a secret and finally separate from her indefinitely, going to Seoul. Chunhyang is crushed, and the film captures her pain and grief most effectively without relying on the prolongued ear-splitting wailing that is the trademark of most Korean dramas. She rips her clothes just as her heart is torn, breaks her writing box (the place of poetry) as her heart is broken, and pleads to no avail. I cried as Mongryong tore away from her. In her hands was the skirt still bearing the oath his hand had made.
In the husband’s absence, a new governor demands Chunhyang as courtesan, holding class over marriage. It would be treason and death to refuse, yet to Chunhyang and to Confucian thought, to make love to two men would be like the governor bowing before two kings. A deep sense of tragedy follows us through the story, with the common Korean themes of waiting and suffering, and the film doesn’t let up until its original question is answered. “Can unswerving loyalty not exist?” It is more than a question of whether anyone can be flawlessly faithful; it is a question of whether the world, as it is, can allow such faithfulness to exist at all.
Narrated in the thrilling cries of the Soriggun, the sexual enthusiasm of the film’s young lovers is deliciously erotic:
“What would you like to eat? A poked round watermelon poured with sweet white honey. Take the seeds out and taste a juicy red piece. Savor it all in one big bite.” A teasingly refusal: “No, I don’t want any.” Another offer: “A short thick and oval sweet cucumber…” And again a playful, grinning, “No I don’t want any.” Some idea of the sexual gusto of the newlyweds: he compares her to a certain bell and himself to the hammer, saying he wishes to strike her 28 times at night and 33 times in the day. This seems less like an exaggeration when one remembers that Mongryong is fifteen.
The dialogue, as one hopes with an operatic/poetic form, is often stunning. It presents for us a brilliant defense on the part of Chunhyang before the local Pontius Pilate, reminding me of Jean D’Arc in Luc Besson’s The Messenger. I was physically shaken when under torture the girl cries out with all her strength, “One and only one!”
The scenery is breathtaking. Appropriate to the poetic style of the film, natural beauty is favoured over stage props. Looking at snow-covered mountains, one can discern a bird of prey high up in the distance. If the dialogue takes precedence over the acting, it doesn’t hurt the comic antics of Pangja (Kim Hak-Young), Mongryong’s servant, nor fail to serve the necessary emotional range of Lee Hyo-jung as Chunhyang. Cho Seung-woo was, frankly, a little dry as Mongryong. I would have liked less of a poker face from him. The script is rich with allusions to and quotations of poems, stories, and mytho-historic persons and beings, but nothing so foreign that one unfamiliar with Korean culture cannot follow the sentiment.
I liked this film much more than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, responsible as that film was for a renewed arousal of the cyclical Western interest in films from East Asia. There is no Chow Yun Phat or Jet Li here, but I found the emotional impact greater, the social commentary more sophisticated, and the theme less ambiguous, even without martial arts. When the film occasionally cuts back to narrative interludes with the Soriggun and Gosu, we can sometimes see tears in the audience, cringing, and even delighted dancing. In fact those are subdued emotions. There is a kind of call and response that goes on between Soriggun and audience that is quieted by auditorium seating. Performed in a park, it would be part of a festival or festivity of which Koreans have many and are very fond. There, or in front of one’s television screen, one can go ahead and alternately moan, cry, or cheer.
Notes on Pronunciation: Latinized vowel sounds are generally used in rendering the transliterated Korean. Also: The name Lee is pronounced “ee”. Mongryong generally sounds more like “Mongnyong”. The [eo] sound is something close to the “uh” at the end of Alleluia.
For more information on Korean film in general, koreanfilm.org is packed with well-presented information.