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From Korea, With Love

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001


    'Chunhyang' Lee Hyo Jung, center, stars in the compelling "Chunhyang." (Lot 47 Films)
And now for something completely different: "Chunhyang," the Korean folk epic, which is an illustrated pansori.

What place is this? Where are we now? Well, for the first few minutes, you may well be forgiven for wondering. Where we are is Korea, in an auditorium; on the stage, pansori is being performed. This consists of a folk opera created by one old man chanting in a singsong voice, accompanied by a musician playing some stringed instrument neither the Beatles nor Beethoven ever thought of.

And this goes on and on and on. And you're thinking, even if you shouldn't be, Mother McCree, have I signed up for two hours of this?

Well, guess what? The director, Im Kwon Taek, has made more than 90 films since 1962, and he knows what he's doing. Though the film will never break contact with the spoken-sung opera, the stage fades, the old man and the boy with the strange guitar vanish, and in a few magical seconds we're in the Korea of the 18th century, ravishingly re-created, and watching a folk tale of utter simplicity, yet utter conviction.

It's the story of the governor's son, Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), a student of 15 who has committed himself to a life of study. But even his father thinks the kid should get out a little.

Thus, forced out on a walk in the country, he spies the legendary Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung). His own age, she is the most beautiful girl in Korea, much sought after by other suitors, all of whom she has airily dismissed. She has ways about her: Though the daughter of a former courtesan, she is also the daughter of a high public official who died before he could marry her mother.

Of course it's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But what a tale. He proposes. They marry and live in erotic bliss for three months. Then he is ordered back to his studies, and sent on to the capital city for the big exam. A new governor (Choi Jin Young) comes to the province. Bored and headstrong to begin with, he decides that Chunhyang will be his new mistress. She remains committed to her vanished husband. The governor orders her tortured.

At the core of this simple tale is a complex issue. In refusing the governor, in her absolutist society, she is guilty of treason. It doesn't matter if the governor is corrupt and his motives base; her obedience must be complete. But at the same time, if she obeys the governor, she is committing adultery, which is also a sin. She must make a choice between private and public morality. She chooses the former.

This results in a horrifying beating that some will find hard to sit through. Not that it's graphic, but the suggestion of cruel, total power launched so aggressively against a young woman who is bound is unsettling, to say the least.

But meanwhile (in these story forms, there's always, thank God, a meanwhile around the corner) her husband is passing his exams with extraordinary success and given a chance – even a secret mission – to return to his home town and reclaim his wife.

The movie demonstrates that sometimes the simplest stories are the most profound, and certainly possess the most moral authority. It's a film that emphasizes loyalty and sacrifice, values that have become jokes in most other films these days.

"Chunhyang" (122 minutes) is unrated but has sexual content and a disturbing scene of violence.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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