Seong Chunhyang (Shin Sang-ok, 1961)

Now here’s a notable, yet not especially interesting film from Korea’s most interesting, yet not always relevant director, Shin Sang-Ok. Shin is one of the most important film makers in South Korean cinema, the prolific director of several milestones in the peninsula’s entertainment history, including Seong Chunhyang, one of the first Korean films in color.

Maybe Seong Chunhyang would interest me more if the folk tale upon which it’s based were within my cultural lexicon. The most obvious observation to make would be that the tale of young Chunhyang is the Korean variation on that archetypical tale of “doomed/tortured lovers,” in which at least one member of the relationship will suffer and/or die for the love of the other. For Chunhyang, the object of her love and suffering is the governor’s son. But shortly after their wedding, he gets whisked off to the capital for one of those inopportunely timed Confucian exams, after a scolding from his dad, who objects to his son’s marriage due to Chunhyang being the daughter of a prostitute. Never mind that her father was an aristocrat and that she is the very essence of Confucian womanliness.

And without a nobleman there to protect her, Chunhyang soon comes to the attention of the new governor of her region, who locks her up when she refuses his advances. Then he beats her...and tortures her a bit more... and then finally decides to execute her by beheading. Thankfully, her beloved is returning a secret agent out to route corruption from the lower governments. He arrives just in time to save her from beheading, while she, all the while, has resisted any and all advances for his sake, even at the threat of violent decapitation.

I wish there were more going on thematically, but Shin and screenwriter Lim Hee-jae craft a fairly direct cinematic representation of a rather slim narrative in support of Confucian purity and faithfulness. It seems wholly unfair to Chunhyang, who is such a perfect specimen of her particular gender role -- smart and charming while demure so as to make “smart and charming” seem nonthreatening -- that her favored suitor’s spineless abandonment of her carries no real consequences to himself. Why doesn’t he suffer? What actually makes him worthy of her suffering?

Setting aside the cultural dissonance that I, a foreign viewer living several centuries and thousands of miles away from the setting of Chunhyang, feel all too strongly, it ought to be noted that Seong Chunhyang is a very good looking movie. Particularly the night scenes, which Shin shoots with such saturated, dramatically colored lighting that they verge on Bavaesque. It’s enough to make one wonder what a more oneiric, fantastic take on the story might be like.

Shin, of course, made fantasy and horror films, including the curious period piece Kaiju ripoff, Pulgasari, which he directed under duress during an unsolicited, eight year visit to his northern neighbor, Kim Jong-Il’s worker’s paradise. He also directed Three Ninjas: Knuckle Up (and produced other entries in that esteemed series). This combination of bizarre personal interest (how many film makers get kidnapped by mad despots and live to tell of it?) genuine competency, and willingness to produce crap to generate money make Shin a character slightly more interesting than his movies.

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