Lovely to Look At
It’s a story oft told: the star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance, but rarely has it been related so dramatically as in Im Kwon Taek’s Chunhyang. Combining the theatrical and the cinematic, Im draws on ancient Korean operatic traditions while utilizing some of the lushest, most gorgeous cinematography this year to create a film that is poetic and lyrical, both visually and aurally. If only it were as engaging of the emotions as it is the senses.
The “handsome and righteous” Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo) is the son of Governor Lee (Choi Jin Young), a provincial ruler in 18th century Korea. The “arrogant and smart” Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung) is the daughter of Wolmae (Kim Sung Nyu), a former courtesan of a previous governor. His father would not approve of their romance (though Wolmae is delighted with her daughter’s handsome and wealthy suitor), so they meet in secret, and are eventually married in secret. But Lee gets wind of his son’s amorous adventurous and, disapproving of them, orders Mongryong to accompany him back to Seoul, where Lee has been appointed to the king’s cabinet. Mongryong vows to return to Chunhyang, but while he’s away, she is targeted by the sadistic new governor, Byun (Lee Jung Hun), who demands her services as his concubine.
If Chunhyang’s is not an old story retold down through the centuries, the sung narration makes it feel that way, rooted in tradition and imbued with the weight of Korea’s ancient culture. Framing the story is the performance of a pansori singer, who sings the legend of this forbidden love to a modern audience in the grand, sweeping, venerated style of operatic narrative poetry. But the narration, breathtaking as it is, does add another layer of remove between the audience and the characters we’re supposed to care about: Chunhyang and Mongryong. Though their story touches on some of the deepest of human emotions — love and honor, loyalty and devotion — I never felt truly involved with them. Chunhyang is an aesthetically beautiful object that nevertheless leaves you feeling cold.
Visually beautiful, though, this film undeniably is. In perhaps the loveliest scene in the film, Mongryong vows his eternal love for Chunhyang by writing it in black ink on her red silk taffeta skirt, his brush moving over her clothing like a caress. Their shy, playful lovemaking is tenderly photographed. The world they share together is a place of valleys hidden in fog and flowering hills, a place full of music and festivals and merrymaking, of women in long, crisp, vibrantly colored robes gliding over stone bridges and flying through the air on swings suspended from willow trees. It’s a place that would be wonderful to visit, where we might, perhaps, get to know Chunhyang and Mongryong a bit better.