In his latest film, Chunhyang, renowned Korean director Im Kwon-taek presents a traditional Korean legend in Pansori (solo opera) style, in which a singer (Cho Sang-hyun), accompanied by a drummer (Kim Myung-hwan), sings the story of a forbidden love set in 18th-century Korea, between Mongyong Lee (Cho Seung-woo) and Chunhyang (Yi Hyo-jeong). If you enjoy epic dramas but don’t like high tonal vocals, then perhaps Chunhyang is not the film for you, and unfortunately, neither the singer’s voice nor the style in which he presents the story is engaging enough to be enjoyed or slight enough to ignore.
The film is about the secret love and marriage between Mongyong, a 15-year-old scholar and the son of the governor of Namwon, and Chunhyang. Despite also being the daughter of a former governor, who passed away before being able to marry her mother, Chunhyang is by law considered the daughter of a courtesan and therefore of a lower class than Mongyong. Knowing he will be disowned by his family and forbidden to take the state exams if his relationship with the girl is found out, Mongyong marries Chunhyang in a secret ceremony, attended only by her mother, Wolmae (Kim Soung-nyeo). For the next few months, Mongyong and Chunhyang share many passionate moments together, always within the confines of her home. But then Mongyong is sent to Seoul to continue his studies, and Chunhyang is left behind in Namwon, where she falls under the tyranny of the new governor, Byon Hakdo (Lee Jung-hun). When she adamantly refuses his order to be his courtesan—insisting she is not a whore, but a fair lady and loyal to her one love—she is sentenced to death.
Enter the Pansori singer, who up until this moment has not been far from the goings-on, his voice heard often as he sings both narrative exposition and poetic conversations between Mongyong and Chunhyang. This strategy interrupts romantic moments between the couple, as the Pansori sings their whispered sweet nothings in a distinctly masculine voice. Rather than the young lovers exchanging their own eternal vows—to be Yin and Yang, husband and wife, and to “live happily forever when they become one”—the performer recites these declarations in his traditional style, which can be discomfiting at times. Fortunately, the unsettling voice-over is usually superceded by rich visuals, comprised of brilliant colors and traditional dress.
When Mongyong first spies Chunhyang across a field, she is standing on a swing, gliding higher and higher, her brilliant red skirt billowing around her. This intensity is compounded when, during the marriage ceremony, Chunhyang spreads her bright pink skirt, upon which Mongyong paints his vows—“Like the sun and the moon, my love with never change.” Im Kwon-taek also presents Mongyong and Chunhyang’s developing relationship in such a passionate way that it also holds your attention, despite the old singer. The film’s most sensual moment comes as the young lovers slide, crawl, and wiggle their way from room to room, until they make love while standing against a wall, partially hidden by a thin paper screen. Their consummation culminates in a shot that recalls the red rose petals falling on Mena Suvari in American Beauty: Mongyong and Chunhyang lie naked and entwined on a full screen shot of orange-red autumn leaves.
However, Chunhyang is more than just a love story. It critiques the gender and class disparities of which Chunhyang is always a victim, and there are times when the Pansori singer is somewhat useful, or rather, not so disruptive to the narrative. When the chief penal officer is ordered to beat Chunhyang so that “her organs explode,” his movements—as he chooses the rod with which to beat the prisoner and prepares his stance—are performed in time with the voice-over, allowing the viewer to focus more on the voice than the brutal action. And after the first few beatings, the film cuts from Chunyhang to the performer on stage and his contemporary audience, their horrified facial expressions a visual substitute for the beating itself.
Gender inequality is seen throughout the film, not merely with the governor’s arrival. Near the beginning of the film, when she asks why Mongyong wants to meet her, Chunhyang is told it’s because she was swinging suggestively in an open field—not in the privacy of her home—was “flaunting” her bare ankles, and had been known to “taunt” men with her giddy laugh. On her wedding night, Chunhyang’s mother instructs her to “Do as he says,” for this is what proper young women do. And despite the fact that Chunhyang is beaten and imprisoned for her fidelity to Mongyong, his reaction is unemotional, even cruel. He does not appear terribly disturbed at the sight of her in a prison cell, and even goes so far as to play what Chunhyang understands as a mean-spirited joke.
Social divisions of the time are presented most notably when the governor arrives with his royal entourage. When an older man from the lower class rushes from the gathering crowd and asks for monetary compensation for over-taxation on his dead son, he is hastily removed from the street, and the chief penal officer flogged for allowing such an outburst. The poor are again treated with disdain, when Mongyong, now an ethics official sent on an undercover investigation by the King, attends the governor’s birthday celebration. Disguised as a beggar, Mongyong forces his way into the main room, where he is humiliated, given a meager dinner tray and laughed at by officials and courtesans alike. Fortunately for the townsfolk, Mongyong—with the help of the royal envoy—soon sets straight all the governor’s wrongdoings, which include stealing rice from the poor, and leaving many to starve and suffer in poor conditions.
While much can be said about the social and gender issues raised in the film, Chunhyang‘s fairy-tale qualities greatly outweigh any serious political critique. While the men are the perpetrators of social inequalities, they are also heralded as authority figures and saviors of those less fortunate. Such simple conclusions to complicated issues leave more time to relish the young lovers and the inevitable happy ending. Besides, what is more likely to garner cheers and applause from an audience out for an evening’s entertainment: two hours of social commentary and proposed solutions for such injustice, or a rescue from certain death and the reunion of young lovers?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chunhyang/