Sweet Seoul Music

You've probably never seen anything quite like the Korean pansori-inspired Chunhyang.

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Lee Hyo Jung stars as Chunhyang.
Lee Hyo Jung stars as Chunhyang.
Im Kwon Taek has long been the best-known Korean director in America; in fact, it would be fair to say that he's pretty much the only even vaguely known Korean director, and even then his renown is strictly among festivalgoers. The general distribution of his latest film, Chunhyang, should be a breakthrough for Im and Korean cinema.

Chunhyang is a stately retelling of a traditional Korean folktale, set in the 18th century. As one might expect from a folktale, the plot is simplicity itself: One day, Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the cloistered son of the governor of Namwon, decides to leave the palace and go riding among the people. On his sojourn, he spots lovely young Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), the chaste daughter of a former courtesan, and instantly falls in love. He courts her with such determination that he quickly wins her hand in marriage and, shortly thereafter, her love.

But then his father is called to Seoul to take a position in the king's cabinet. Mongryong must accompany him, but he can't take Chunhyang with him: His marriage to a courtesan's daughter would cause a scandal and would ruin his chances for government service. Unfortunately, Byun (Lee Jung Hun), the replacement governor, is basically James Baker in a robe -- a vicious, self-righteous aristocrat who believes that executions are the answer to all problems that flogging can't cure. Byun demands that Chunhyang become his courtesan; she respectfully explains that she is faithful to her husband, who is her one true love.

In return, Byun has her beaten, tortured, and imprisoned for the next three years, while the oblivious Mongryong is off in Seoul, taking his civil exams. Only when Mongryong returns, in mufti, on a secret mission, does he learn of the brutal treatment Byun has dealt out to the region's people in general and to Chunhyang most of all. Heroics ensue.

In 1993, Im made Sopyonje, the biggest hit in Korean history and the only one of his previous films to receive American distribution. Sopyonje was a paean to the dying folk tradition of pansori, which is generally described as analogous to country blues in America. (Call it sweet Seoul music.) While it's easy to see why it appealed to a populace nostalgic for a vanishing culture, it didn't translate well for American audiences, who lack the cultural framework to respond to or care about pansori.

Chunhyang can be seen as another attempt to bolster the form's flagging fortunes -- and a vastly more successful one. What Im has tried to do is to find a synthesis of the unique art of pansori and the techniques of cinema. In doing so, he makes a much stronger case (for foreigners, at least) than he did in the earlier film.

Chunhyang opens with pansori singer Cho Sang Hyun on stage, singing the story, accompanied only by a percussionist. Only after a few minutes does Im "open up" the action, in the manner of, say, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. We begin to see the story acted out, as an accompaniment to the pansori singer's vocal/narration. Im's technique is completely earnest: There is virtually no ironic distance between what we are told and what we see.

Im gradually moves into the realm of the visuals, sometimes abandoning the narration while the characters on screen speak. (Only at one particularly significant dramatic moment about halfway through does he have the narrator and an actor speak a line in unison.) At various moments, the film resembles different American cinema styles. When the camera is on singer Cho on stage -- as happens perhaps a half-dozen times -- it's a bit like listening to a Spaulding Gray monologue, set to music. Watching him at work here also makes it clear that, in terms of style, pansori is much more like gospel than country blues: Cho employs a growling tone and a preacher's delivery, while the audience yells back in affirmation during particularly dramatic scenes. At other moments, one is likely to think of Cat Ballou's minstrel-show continuity songs or of pop-song montage sequences à la "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The net effect is that Im draws us into the world of pansori, using film as a medium through which even culturally parochial, snickering Americans can come to see the unique values of the form. This is effected in no small measure by the director's gorgeous visual style, which is far more impressive here than in Sopyonje. An almost constantly gliding camera sweeps by unreal vistas, filled with a riot of colors, while characters within the frame often move in stylized ways that approach dance.

Some critical fans of the recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have claimed "You've never seen anything like it!" -- an assertion that says more about the speaker's ignorance of the wide availability of Hong Kong action movies in America than it does about Ang Lee's film. But given the general obscurity of Korean movies -- and pansori, to boot -- in the U.S. (outside of Korean neighborhoods), the same claim seems more applicable here: Unless you're deeply familiar with Korean culture, you've truly never seen anything like it.

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