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'Chunhyang's' Seamless Blend

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001


    'Chunhyang' Lee Hyo Jung, center, stars in the compelling "Chunhyang." (Lot 47 Films)
In "Chunhyang," a narrator tells a traditional story, accompanied by a percussionist, before an auditorium full of cheering Koreans, whose enthusiastic responses suggest an Asian revival meeting.

The performer is dressed in traditional costume; but the audience, consisting of men, women and young adults, is contemporary. This passionate call and response session is a modernized version of Pansori, the country's operatic narrative art that tells stories through music, song and dance.

But this scene, which we return to throughout the movie, serves merely as a chorus for the colorful, culturally piquant "Chunhyang," a tale of romantic sacrifice that takes place in 18th-century Korea.

The real story – the movie within the movie – follows the romance between Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), a delicately featured, iron-willed young woman from a Korean village, and Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the son of the governor of Namwon.

She's the virginal daughter of a courtesan, and she's socially branded by her mother's profession. So, when Mongryong persuades her to marry, the young couple must perform the ceremony in secret.

When his father is transferred to Seoul, the old man orders Mongryong to move with him. Mongryong, whose marriage to Chunhyang remains a secret, is obliged to obey.

Since revealing his wedded status would jeopardize his career, he's forced to leave Chunhyang behind while he pursues his studies in the capital. His intention is to return when he has an established job.

While Mongryong is away, the new governor of Namwon decides Chunhyang would make a perfect concubine. But when she refuses his order, telling him she belongs to her husband, the new governor condemns her to death. But Chunhyang remains resolute, holding out for her husband's return.

Mongryong, now an official envoy of the king, comes back on a secret mission that requires him to be disguised as a beggar. When he learns about Chunhyang's plight, he enlists the locals – all unhappy with the corrupt governor – to assist him in an ambitious, "Robin Hood"-style plan to save his wife and the province.

Filmmaker Im Kwon Taek, Korea's most assured and prolific filmmaker, has created a perfect marriage between traditional form and contemporary issues. "Chunhyang" is more than a romance that pays tribute to the cultural past. It's also a metaphor for the evils of entrenched patriarchy and class divisions in the modern world. Chunhyang's determination to stand up for herself – assisted by a spontaneous coalition of courtesans and peasants – has obvious applications to the rights of women, the underclass and all individuals; and it also indirectly addresses political corruption.

But above all, "Chunhyang" is a three-ring circus of visual pleasure, showing us the beauty of Korean garment, custom and national character. The lifestyles of the characters are on exhilarating display, and Im Kwon Taek's filmmaking style (he has made more than 90 films) is fluid and dynamic. And he does something unique, here: creating a bridge between the past and the modern, and transporting us into a world every bit as vivacious, urgent and spontaneous as the one in which we live.

"Chunhyang" (Unrated, 122 minutes) – In Korean with subtitles. Contains some violence.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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