"Chunhyang," the 97th film by Korean master director Im Kwon Taek, is also the first of his country's cinematic products to receive conventional theatrical release in the United States. As such, it's as much a cross-cultural experience as it is an engrossing piece of work.
The film's very structure poses a challenge to those viewers (i.e., most of us) who are unfamiliar with the Korean art of pansori, a traditional style of performance in which stories are told through song. In relating his version of a centuries-old folk tale -- an epic romance between lovers of different social classes -- the 64-year-old Im cuts between the beautifully photographed love story and the narration and commentary provided by pansori singer Cho Sang Hyun.
Initially seen on a darkened stage and situated next to a drummer, Cho sings passionately, sweetly and always with great emotion, pacing around and flailing his arms for emphasis. Throughout the film, as Im returns again and again to that performance, it's revealed that the two men are practicing their highly stylized art in front of an audience. Some listeners are seen shedding tears over the twists and turns of the story, and some respond by leaving their seats and moving to the rhythms of the tale.
Im does a remarkable job of weaving the performance through the heart of the film, an 18th-century fantasy about the love between a nobleman's sole heir and the daughter of a prostitute. At first, that story seems to center on the plight of Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the handsome, 15-year-old son of the Namwon province's governor. Mongryong, followed around by his clowning servant Pangja (Kim Hak Yong), first glimpses the beautiful maiden Chunhyang as part of a tableaux come to life. She's swinging up and down under a tree in a verdant forest. He can't resist meeting her, forcing an impromptu visit and then returning to her village at night.
"Your scent fills my room and intoxicates me," he proclaims, making his move.
The movie likewise begins to take hold at about this point, drawing us into a series of events that are deeply romantic. The boy pledges his love, in ink, on her dress; the two then experience a sexual awakening, playfully falling out of their layers of clothes and into intimate embraces. (There's no emphasis, however, on eroticism.) These scenes -- including one that shows the young couple clad in white and rolling around in a field of red flowers -- are as beautifully photographed as anything else in the movie.
The honeymoon is sweet but short. Mongryong is compelled to return to his studies in Seoul, and a brutal new Namwon governor beats and imprisons the young bride when she refuses to become his concubine. Will "the class that divides us" (as Mongryong puts it) prevent the two soulmates from reuniting, or will the hero return to defend the honor of his bride and wreak havoc on her torturer?
It's fascinating to watch the story unwind, as Im employs a reported 8,000 extras and 12,000 period costumes that made "Chunhyang" the most lavish and expensive ($2 million) production in the history of Korean film. It's an achievement that may well tempt viewers into wondering what other cinematic treasures the country has waiting to be discovered.