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Korean film 'Chunhyang' an epic of visual poetry

Saturday, February 03, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

It was with a joyless sense of duty that I went into something misleadingly billed as a two-hour "Korean opera" and with a joyous sense of rapture that I came out.

"Chunhyang" is pure visual poetry more than opera, the largest film production ever undertaken in Korea, with 8,000 extras and 12,000 costumes -- a spectacle in every sense. Its striking theatrical framework is Pansori, the stylized Korean art form of sung-narrative storytelling that dates back to the Choson Dynasty 1,000 years before Christ.


Rating: Unrated but PG-13 in nature for tasteful sex scenes.

Starring: Lee Hyo Jung, Cho Seung Woo.

Director: Im Kwon Taek.

Web site:

Critic's call:


It is used to breathtaking effect in telling the passionate 18th-century tale of Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), the gorgeous courtesan's daughter with whom Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo) -- son of the provincial governor of Namwon -- falls in love. Soon after their secret marriage, Mongryong is ordered to Seoul for his education. He promises to send for her when he finishes his schooling.

But Chunhyang sees it for what it is -- abandonment -- and her real and ritual despair is heartrending. "Oh, my husband, please take me," she begs, but is left to climb a hill and watch him recede from her into the fairytale distance. It is aN exquisite sequence, as is their wedding-night scene, when her deep virginal reticence is fast followed by ecstasy and frolic.

Time passes -- too much time: An evil governor takes over Namwon and orders Chunhyang to join the courtesan ranks who serve him. She refuses, out of fidelity to Mongryong.

"A chaste courtesan's daughter is ridiculous!" the ruler fumes, ordering her to be flogged "until her organs burst," followed by imprisonment and a death sentence.

Finally, Mongryong passes his exams and becomes an Ethics Commissioner, assigned to check up on Namwon and provide justice as well as a happy ending.

The narrator's raspy singing style of this genre, rendered here by a kind of Korean Louis Armstrong, is overwhelmingly unpleasant at first. It's churlish to say, but I mean it seriously: This is a perfect film for the deaf or hearing-impaired. Yet just when you think you can't stand it anymore, you get used to it. Then you get into its rhythms. And then -- by God, you end up liking it.

Im Kwon Taek, Korea's most revered director, has made an astonishing total of 92 films since 1962. The story of Chunhyang has always held a powerful fascination and emotional charge for Koreans. And now for us.

"Chunhyang" is a perfectly structured morality tale, lavishly photographed by Jung Il Sung, an enchantingly beautiful epic, the likes of which you and I have never seen before and owe it to ourselves to savor now that we have the chance.

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