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Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

'CHUNHYANG'

A living, dancing tradition


Stories may be universal, but story-telling, as a performance art, just doesn't travel well. Kabuki is universally known among the educated in the West, at least by name, while rakugo remains obscure to all but scholars and a handful of devotees. This is an unfortunate, but seemingly intractable position. Narration in English to foreigners wearing headphones works fine for kabuki, but even the most fluent, dulcet-toned interpreter would find it hard, if not impossible, to get across the punch line of a rakugo story.

One great thing about Im Kwon Taek's new film "Chunhyang" is the ease and fluency with which it bridges the gap between pansori -- a Korean form of recitation akin to Japanese joruri -- and a non-Korean-speaking audience. A staple of the pansori repertoire for centuries, "Chunhyang," a story of virtuous young lovers triumphing over evil, is as central to Korean national identity as "Chushingura" is to Japan's. It had been filmed 16 times before Im made yet another version last year.

A prolific director, with more than 90 films to his credit, more than a few of them award winners, Im hadn't been satisfied with any of the previous films because, he said in a program interview, "none fully acknowledged their pansori origins." In making "Chunhyang" he incorporated a performance by Cho Sang Hyun, considered one of the masters of the form.

This performance, as seen in interspersed shots and heard throughout, has a raw emotional power and rhythmic propulsion more reminiscent of B.B. King than Tamasaburo. Also, Im included shots of the audience, whose members not only watch enthralled, but witness and testify as though they were at the Apollo. The triangular relationship between film, performance and audience gives "Chunhyang" a spark and drive that the film alone would lack.

Granted, the constant barrage of subtitles slows its drive, but it is possible to follow the story with only occasional glances at the side of the screen. Im and cinematographer Jung Il Sung have cut the narrative clutter, shooting for visual beauty and impact, with swooping crane shots and picture-postcard compositions. But though the film may play like a folk tale illustrated in lusher-than-life colors, Im has cast and directed it as closely as possible to his vision of the original, while stripping away the layers of tradition that had threatened to fossilize it.

This approach -- striving for a purity and freshness of look and tone while bringing an ancient story into the new millennium -- evidently didn't sit well with Korean audiences, who stayed away from the theaters. It does, however, make this Korean epic truly accessible for foreign audiences, which is one reason why "Chunhyang" became the first Korean film selected for the Cannes competition.

The two young lovers are Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the 16-year-old son of a provincial governor, and Chunhyang (Yi Hyo Jeong), the 16-year-old daughter of a concubine. In other words, the familiar pair of star-crossed, hormone-tossed adolescents -- Romeo and Juliet in Korean guise.

As the film begins, Mongryong is preparing to take the examination to enter the bureaucracy and barely acknowledges the world outside his window. Then one fine spring day, he decides, on the spur of the moment, to see the sights. Venturing forth on a donkey pulled by a comic-relief retainer, he is the very picture of the well-bred young aristocrat, smiling serenely and indulgently at the occupations and amusements of the common herd. Then, at rest in an open-air pavilion, he spies a young woman flying on a swing, the epitome of bold grace and beauty.

He is instantly and totally smitten, even after he learns that the young woman is the daughter of a concubine -- the lowest of the low. He pursues her, she reciprocates and loves quickly blooms, but he is an upright youth who wants to legitimize his conquest. After consulting with his lover's mother, who poses no objection, he signs a marriage contract. Now man and wife, in their own eyes at least, Mongryong and Chunhyang enjoy days and nights of delight. Then his strict father learns about this affair -- and sends him away to Seoul to sit for his examinations.

He leaves, but despite her bitter disappointment, Chunhyang remains faithful. A new governor arrives, a cruel and haughty man, who learns of Chunhyang's beauty and decides he must have her. When she objects, he has her beaten and imprisoned, while telling her that she is his by law and custom. But she is determined to remain true to one man, even if the whole world is against her, even if she has to die.

Meanwhile, Mongryong, who has ascended into the bureaucracy, is plotting his return -- and his reunion. This time, however, he will go, not as a powerless youth, but as a high government official, armed with not only his own virtue, but the force of the law.

Nearly the same ages as the characters they are playing, Yi Hyo Jeong and Cho Seung Woo bring an unforced naturalness and exuberant sexuality to their roles. Cho exemplifies the Eastern aristocratic ideal -- i.e., imperturbable to the point of spaciness -- in his bearing, while remaining appealingly human in his emotions. Yi may embody the Confucian image of the virtuous woman, but in her unabashed passion for her lover and her unshakable defiance of authority, she strikes a contemporary note as well.

But above all, the film is driven by the brilliant roar and shiver of Cho Sang Hyun's pansori performance. At the end, in joyful celebration of the lovers' triumph, he brings the audience to its feet, erasing boundaries of culture and time on both sides of the screen. Chunhyang lives for all of us now.

"Chunhyang" is playing until Jan. 27 at Cine La Sept, Ginza.


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