In this folk tale set in 18th century Korea, Chunhyang, the daughter of a courtesan, and Mongryong, a son of the local aristocracy, fall in love, a familiar once-upon-a-time premise that the film unfolds in a maddeningly leisurely manner. They marry in secret, and when the young man is sent to Seoul to finish the studies that will prepare him for officialdom, he vows to return to his secret love.
But while he’s gone, a new and cruel governor arrives in Chunhyang’s town, one who’s determined to exorcise the girl’s unseemly pride, first through public punishment, then imprisonment and finally the threat of death. The question then becomes, will Mongryong arrive back in town in time to save his suffering bride? Does he still even care (these ruling class types can be very fickle)? Will love conquer all, even the crushing strictures of the caste system? Are you kidding? It’s not giving anything away to say that there are no surprises in the film; this is archetypal stuff, where the good may suffer, but the evil are banished.
What makes Chunhyang more than a nicely photographed storybook fable is that it’s narrated by a Korean pansori singer (Cho Sang Hyun), who often crops up as a voice-over (sing-over?) describing the action we’re seeing, and also is occasionally shown performing the story before a modern-day audience. Though the pansori style has some familiar Asian elements — the throaty yowls and yearning held notes — it’s a singularly intense form, with a gruff soulfulness reminiscent of some arabesque blues singer (Howlin’ Wolf by way of Captain Beefheart), and with an oddly moving use of technique, as when phrases that seem about to trail off will suddenly leap several octaves before fading.
When not much is happening in the film, Cho’s singing seems almost satirical, but when the story takes a nasty turn, his pitch is perfect. And the modern-day inserts, which could be distancing, are quite affecting; it’s like a revival meeting, with the audience exhorting Cho, crying at the sad parts and beaming with joy at the rescues (and you just know they’ve heard this story a hundred times before).
It all seems nicely perverse. Here’s the kind of old-fashioned, picturesque love story that should appeal to those who like their foreign films familiar and sappy, and yet it’s layered over with a sound track whose raw emotionalism will swamp the casual listener. Which is both a warning and a recommendation.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.