Chunhyang

on December 29, 2000 by Wade Major
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   The most expensive Korean film ever made and the first to garner significant attention abroad, the exceptional "Chunhyang" looks to finally secure for its veteran director, Kwon Taek Im, the global reputation that some 90 previous features have not.

   The traditional Korean performance art of pansori--a kind of one-man opera incorporating song, dance and poetic reading--is the basis for the revered 13th century story of forbidden love in which Chunhyang (Hyo Jung Lee), the educated daughter of a courtesan, tempts fate and defies cultural taboo by secretly wedding Mongryong (Seung Woo Cho), the son of the regional governor. It is only after Mongryong leaves to complete his studies in Seoul, however, that Chunhyang must confront the consequences of such defiance.

   Sumptuously and expertly conceived, "Chunhyang" is a smart, sinewy fable that unfolds in the same deliberate manner as a Shakespearean comedy or a Greek tragedy, even as it manages to sidestep being pigeonholed by such restrictive Western concepts. For while "Chunhyang" remains uniquely and undeniably Asian, it retains none of the steely exoticism typified by recent Chinese and Japanese cinema. Instead, Western audiences will discover more familiar elements reminiscent of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella," underscoring Taek's emphasis on themes that are both universal and transcendent. At the same time, Taek and screenwriter Kim Myoung Kon stay true to the film's cultural origins, adhering almost mathematically to the pansori narrative structure by employing an actual present-day pansori performance of the story as their primary framing device.

   Personal taste notwithstanding, there can be no questioning Taek's dramatic and technical achievement. In the end, stars Lee and Cho are the most luminous figures in a sumptuous production that reportedly required more than 8,000 extras and 12,000 costumes. In a certain sense, "Chunhyang" shares more with the Hollywood tradition of yesteryear than any present-day Asian tradition, harking back to the days of melodramatic widescreen spectacles when big emotions, sweeping vistas and bleary-eyed, star-crossed lovers swept audiences into theatres in droves. That this throwback comes from Korea, rather than Hollywood, is of little consequence. It's a welcome gift of inestimable value.    Starring Hyo Jung Lee, Seung Woo Cho, Sung Nyu Kim, Jung Hun Lee, Sang Hyun Cho and Hak Yong Kim. Directed by Kwon Taek Im. Written by Myoung Kon Kim. Produced by Tae Won Lee. A Lot 47 release. Period drama. Korean-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 120 min.

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