It’s surely a virtue to be open to artistic expressions from cultures other than one’s own, so it’s undoubtedly valuable that Lot 47 Films has decided to release the South Korean “Chunhyang,” from prolific director Im Kwon Taek, in this country. In terms of narrative, the film offers a traditional Korean tale which intermingles moralistic praise of wifely fidelity on the one hand and good royal government on the other (indeed, it implies that the two are comparable in ethical terms). However, it couches its presentation of the story within the framework of a sung performance of it by a histrionic declaimer (Hong Kyung Yeun) who’s accompanied by a drummer (Kim Hyung Hwan); this is the form of Korean solo opera known as pansori, which might best be compared to Celtic bardic practice, although one might also see it as similar to the ancient Greek poetic tradition centered on figures like Homer or even the more recent African habit of maintaining a local historical record through the music-like recitation of memorized past accounts by local figures of the sort that Alex Haley encountered in writing “Roots.”
“Chunhyang” begins with Hong singing rhythmically (without subtitles) on a near-barren stage, with Kim’s drum striking the accents or beats of the verse. The effect isn’t dissimilar from rap, although the extraordinarily pungent, emphatic style of declamation will strike western ears as more wailing than vocalizing. We then segue into the story–shot in lush, colorful hues on large sets boasting big crowds when appropriate–of a young governor’s son who falls in love with (and secretly weds) Chunhyang, the beautiful daughter of a local courtesan, only to be torn away from her when his father is transferred to Seoul and he must also go there to take his government exams. She promises him fidelity and he pledges to return; but no sooner has he left than the cruel new governor demands the girl’s services. When she refuses, the governor brutally abuses her while his henchmen loot the countryside. We’re told that three years pass, during which Chunhyang suffers terribly in her Penelope-like fidelity while her husband aces his test and becomes a chief royal minister. Happily, he’s sent back to the district, disguised as a beggar, to investigate the governor’s conduct in office, arriving in time to save his wife and reestablish honest rule in the king’s name. This is obviously a simple folk-tale exalting both feminine integrity and enlightened royal rule, and it’s played that way, with stilted acting and very schematic dramaturgy. But throughout it’s also periodically interrupted by our return to the pansori-singer telling the tale onstage before a rapt and emotional audience; and we often hear his insistent narration of events overlaid upon depictions of the scenes he’s describing.
All of this is dramatically rather curious and off-putting. The purely visual portion of the picture has a certain beauty and visceral power, even if it’s staged more woodenly than might suit western taste. (The fable, to be perfectly honest, has less depth and subtlety than Disney’s “Mulan,” and the performances embody a quasi-operatic style that’s sometimes almost humorously obvious.) But intersplicing the pansori segments makes for a very peculiar hybrid. After all, the entire point of pansori is that the recitation is complete in itself, with no need for extraneous imagery; the dramatic use of the voice, which often tries to simulate the effect of the mood or object it describes, surely points to this. Adding cinematic representations to what’s being told by the bard thus seems rather untrue to the premises of his artistry. On the other hand, the narration often needlessly reinforces what we’re shown on the screen, telling us the characters’ moods, for instance, or describing a scene that’s been recreated by the production designers; the effect is redundant, but even worse it seems to betray the filmmakers’ fear that their dramatization isn’t successful on its own. In other words, by trying to meld the two art forms, “Chunhyang” doesn’t seem very true to either; imagine, if you will, a movie of Homer’s “Odyssey” which was punctuated by a white-haired fellow in a toga reciting Greek verses from the poem, or an adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s novels periodically interrupted by shots of the author scribbling words in her notebook or someone reading fragments of the text which were then replicated on the screen. The effect would be jarring, and though the analogy isn’t perfect, Im’s attempt to meld pansori with images on film isn’t entirely satisfactory either.
So “Chunhyang” remains, for all its cultural interest, at best a cinematic curiosity which only those with the most rarified tastes will want to sample.