July 11, 2007


The Korean folk tale that the screenplay is based upon begins as a Cinderella-type love story about young love conquering class, in this case between Chunhyang, daughter of a courtesan, and the son of a local governor, Master Lee Mongryong. When Mongyong's father is promoted to a position in Seoul, he orders his son to accompany him in order to prepare for his civil service exams.

And so the lovers must part, though not after consummating a common-law marriage. At this point the story grows more serious. In theme it resembles Fidelio, Beethoven's paean to marital devotion, though is closer in tone to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Mongyong's servant Pangja providing the comic relief), including the sharp turn from light to dark melodrama. Though where Shakespeare focuses on the balance between justice and mercy, the Korean version makes central the conflict between competing Confucian loyalties to state and spouse.

A new governor has been installed in the province. Hearing of Chunhyang's famed beauty, he orders her to appear before him. She rebuffs him, telling him that she is already pledged to another. But he ranks the privileges of class over the promises of the heart. Confucian order demands her obedience to his office. She again refuses. The governor jails and beats her, but she does not relent. Could a man serve two kings? the faithful Chunhyang asks. Better that you kill me instead.

The governor is unmoved, but the commoners, who had initially expressed some glee at her plight (she was disdained for thinking herself above her station) are deeply moved. When at last Mongyong returns (incognito, another parallel with Measure for Measure), having graduated with honors and now carrying a royal inspector's mandate in his back pocket, they are ready to rally to his side. Not to spoil the suspense, but things do end very much happily ever after.

Apparently, Korean audiences have reacted to the film as would we to yet another retelling of Cinderella. It is a simple story simply told (the governor has only a vaudevillian depth as a villain). The rest of us unfamiliar with the story, though, should be entranced by its operatic excesses, director Im Kwon-Taek's vivid use of vibrant color and sound, and the breathtaking scenery. Chunhyang breaths new life to the period costume drama.

What uniquely sets it apart, though, is the film's narrator, Cho SangHyun. Chunhyang is one of the five extant Pansori operas, an school of traditional storytelling in which the balladeer (or soriggun) is accompanied by a single drummer. Watching his energetic live performance—often stirring the audience to call and response outbursts—convinced me that this is how the Homeric bards must have sounded to their ancient listeners.

The movie begins with Cho SangHyun alone on the stage, and his narrative is threaded into and through the film's narrative, even echoing, overlapping, or answering the dialogue on screen. The scene of Chunhyang being beaten by the governor's guards, for example, is depicted stylistically, almost as a dance. Even so, the camera cuts away to show the soriggun reciting the story to the audience. This third-person description is no less intense, and perhaps truer to its emotional depth.

Of course, keep in mind that this is a fairy tale and not so much concerned with historical "realities" (the downtrodden peasantry manage to not be unaesthetically downtrodden). This treatment of violence contrasts interestingly with an earlier series of love scenes between Mongyong and Chunhyang, which are sufficiently explicit as to leave little to the imagination. (The soriggun's verse at this point is filled with delicious double entendres about honey, watermelons, cucumbers . . . . )

It's sweet and clever and hardly gratuitous in its context. After all, the whole movie is gorgeous to look at, and Hyo-jeong Lee ( Chunhyang) and Seung-woo Cho (Mongyong) are plenty beautiful without their clothes on, too, and photographed so magnificently. Okay, it would be shocking to many good folk if Disney came out with an R-rated version of Cinderella, but I have the sinking feeling that it would end up being rated R for language and violence instead.

Movies like Chunhyang or Tampopo that are rated R solely because an attractive actress (true, usually an actress) spends a few minutes of screen time undressed are inexplicably rare. Part of this trend I blame on movies like Saving Private Ryan for again conning the viewing public into believing that graphic violence is not only "realistic" (a laughable assertion, if it weren't taken so seriously), but somehow "bold" and "artistic."

Though I suppose you could trace it back to Sam Peckinpah, or when the Hollywood horror community discovered latex, as in Cat People (the objectionable thing about Cat People is Ed Begley getting his arm ripped off—and various other people eaten by Malcolm McDowell—in living color, not Nastassja Kinski naked). But that's not it, alone.

Consider what meets the current standards for broadcast television in the United States.

First of all, you can intimate anything about sex on broadcast TV, and come close to showing it, as long as everybody stays dressed. And most such intimations about "normal" couples with "normal" sex lives are found in sit-coms about mostly normal people (The Simpsons, for example). Otherwise, sex is the province or the juvenile, or the perverse, or the insipid (Sex and the City qualifies as all three). There is an entire series, Law & Order: SVU, that is only about sex crimes. Why anybody watches it is beyond me.

In other words, showing horrible and ugly things about sex is acceptable. Showing naked bodies on CSI is okay as long as they are disemboweled on an operating table (and mostly not even then). I blame it on our Victorian forebears. This is a rhetorical stretch, I know, but the kind of society that produced Jack the Ripper is also the kind of society that sits down to watch Law & Order: SVU every week. Yet would be shocked! shocked! if Jolene Blalock took her top off on Enterprise.

[Sorry for the dated pop-culture reference, but it makes the point. And besides, I consider Enterprise the best of the Treks.]

I'm referring to a giggle-inducing scene in which T'Pol and Trip are supposed to be decontaminating their skin of nasty alien pathogens. Of course, they've still got their underwear on, thus leaving swaths of themselves un-decontaminated. The nitpicker in me says: do it right or don't do it at all. Though I suppose there's a certain logic to the argument that a fine-looking Vulcan woman shouldn't mind spending more time than the rest of the cast in her skivvies. Not that I'm complaining.

But my original point—and I'm finally getting back to it—is that, watching Chunhyang, it was very nice to see, for once, the metaphor—the aesthetic distance—being used to depict the violence, and not (the euphemism is appropriate here) the love scenes.

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