Dir: Im Kwon Taek. South Korea. 2000. 120 mins.
Prod cos: Taehung Pictures. Domestic dist: Mirae Asset. Int'l Sales: Le Studio Canal, tel: (33) 1 53 64 85 55). Exec prods: Kim Dong Joo, Seok Dong Jun, Park Do Jun. Prod: Lee Tae Won. Scr: Kim Myoung Kon, based on the Pansori song by Cho Sang Hyun. Dop: Jung Il Sung. Prod des: Min Un Ok. Ed: Park Soon Duk. Music: Kim Jung Gil. Main cast: Yi Hyo Jeong, Cho Seung Woo, Kim Sung Nyu, Lee Jung Hun, Choi Jin Young, Cho Sang Hyun, Kim Myung Hwan.
Based on a classic Korean folk tale, Chunhyang is a sweet and exuberant love story accompanied by traditional 'pansori' music performed by a solo singer-narrator-dancer to a drum accompaniment. Certain to be a commanding success on its home turf, the film is unusually accessible for Western viewers thanks to its sumptuous production values, emotional directness and the combination of an exotic cultural tradition with a mythic narrative of universal appeal.
Ironically, these self-same popular qualities may also prove a strike against Chunhyang in terms of selling it internationally as an arthouse item. This, added to the lack of an existing audience for Korean cinema, means that its exposure abroad will be probably be confined to the festival circuit. Though, with careful positioning, its curiosity value could well offer a limited theatrical potential.
In the provincial town of Namwon in the 13th century, a nobleman, the Governor's son (Cho), takes a trip to the country where he catches a glimpse of a radiant young girl, Chunhyang (Yi), playing on a swing. Immediately smitten despite her lowly status as the daughter of a courtesan, he declares his eternal devotion to her in brushstrokes on her silk dress. She initially hesitates, but when Mongryong reassures her that he has marriage in mind, she accepts his hand.
They enjoy a brief idyll of romantic rapture during a touching and intensely erotic wedding night, which runs the gamut from timidity to playfulness and euphoric passion. However reality intervenes when Monryong's father is transferred to Seoul taking his family with him. The couple separates tearfully, exchanging pledges and promises to reunite as soon as they have the chance.
The new Governor in Namwon (Choi) is bad news. A sadistic and decadent brute, his first act on arrival is not to convene with his functionaries but to inspect all the courtesans in the district. Having heard of Chunhyang's beauty, he has his eye on her but she rebuffs his advances and is savagely flogged for her insolence.
Meanwhile Monryong is fashioning a brilliant career in Seoul and is named the King's official inspector and charged with roving the country to stamp out corruption. Disguised as a beggar he infiltrates the Namwon Governor's birthday banquet, the highlight of which is to be Chunhyang being publically beaten to death.
All this is narrated by the pansori, a feisty singer with a belting voice that would give most rock and roll stars a run for their money. Mostly heard in music-over, he is occasionally seen performing the story on stage to an evidently appreciative audience of all ages.
The two very young leads - both making their acting debuts - are enormously fresh and appealing though their characters aren't allowed to develop much beyond archetypes; despite a number of nice details in the storytelling and performances, the tale sometimes feels a little flimsy to sustain its two hour running time. But the piece is gorgeously mounted by Im, with some lovely pastoral cinematography and (in sharp contrast to some of the other epic historical dramas on view here this year) a constantly dynamic command of his vast canvas.