[HanCinema's Film Review] "Seong Chun-hyang" + Full Movie

As I have mentioned before, the "Chunhyangjeon" is one of Korea's most iconic epic stories, and has been adapted more than a dozen times on cinema. Shin Sang-ok's version was one of the first films in color cinemascope in Korean cinema, along with Hong Seong-ki's version of the same story, which also screened the same year.

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Wol-mae is a retired gisaeng living in Namwon, whose daughter, Chun-hyang, is famous for her beauty in the area. Lee Mong-ryong, the son of the local magistrate, is smitten by her beauty and sends his servant, Bang-ja, to ask from her to meet. Her servant, however, Hyang-dan, chases him away, forcing Mong-ryong to visit himself. Soon, the two youths finds themselves attracted to each other, and spending the night in Wol-mae's house, after a series of shenanigans of the two males that end up with Mong-ryong taking Chun-hyang as his fiancé. While the visits continue, Bang-ja also flirts with Hyang-dan shamelessly, and another relationship, parallel to the main one, begins.

Soon, however, tragedy hits the couple, as Lee's disgruntled father leaves the area along with the local governor, and the young man is obliged to follow him in order to study for the state exam. Both Chun-hyang and Wol-mae are inconsolable, since the girl cannot follow her husband, and soon she detracts from the world, constantly staying in her room. Her fate becomes even worse when the new governor arrives, Byeon Hak-do, a man known for his sadistic tendencies and his overall cruelty. Hak-do is searching for a gisaeng for him in the area and the only woman he likes is Chung-hyang. The girl however, refuses his orders to serve him and soon finds herself under torture and eventually, in prison.

Shin Sang-ok directs a film that is split in two parts, which are rather different in their narrative approach. The first one unfolds much like a romantic comedy, with Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang taking care of the first part, and Bang-ja and Hyang-dan the second. The approach here is light, cheerful, and the characters filled with smiles. Do Kum-bong as the lady servant and Heo Jang-kang as the man servant give great performances here, with their cheekiness and somewhat competing flirting being one of the most entertaining parts of the whole film.

After Mong-ryong's departure, however, the movie turns to Shin Sang-ok's most typical genre, the melodrama, which takes the largest part of the narrative. Chun-hyang's despair and Wol-mae's effort to protect her in her sadness become the central focus here, but the tragedy really begins upon the arrival of Byeon Hak-do, who, along with his despicable entourage, proceeds on making fun of the weak to entertain themselves and torture anyone who comes their way. Their arrival and the calling for all courtesans of the area may be somewhat funny, particularly through the interaction with the elderly one who pretends to be 16-years-old, but upon Chun-hyang's appearance in front of the court, the story becomes a true tragedy. Her harsh imprisonment, particularly due to the wooden plank she carries around her neck, and the frequent torturing due to her continuous denial to betray her fiance, are rather brutal, to the point that the movie borders on the exploitation on occasion. The constant laughter of Byeon Hak-do's crew, make a rather nightmarish antithesis with Chun-hyang's yelling and crying, that also highlight the excellent use of sound in the movie, and the equal editing by Kim Young-hee-II. At the same time, however, both this part, and the last arc that involves the return of Mong-ryong, lag significantly, with a number of repetitive scenes that seem unnecessary or at least intensely prolonged for no apparent reason.

At the same time, however, they serve the purpose of showing how awful the new local lord is, and how the locals consider Chun-hyang a hero, and Mong-ryong a coward who abandoned her. The aforementioned last arc seems to be so lengthy in order to show how he has changed, with this aspect justifying the duration, to a point at least.

Choi Eun-hee's performance is one of the greatest of her career, in a rather demanding role, both physically, considering the torture her characters suffers through, and in terms of acting, since she has to utter her lines with an intense theatricality, all the while exhibiting a series of different sentiments that range from happiness to utter despair. Kim Jin-kyu is convincing in his transformation to a hero as Mong-ryong, but definitively on a lower level than Choi. Lee Ye-chun as Byeon Hak-do is great in the archetypical role of the majestic villain, with his laughter essentially providing the soundtrack of the movie.

Technically, the movie obviously had a big budget, which was implemented excellently by Shin Sang-ok, in order to present images of extreme beauty. The costumes and the sets are impeccably presented by Lee Jeong-su and Gang Seong-beom respectively, while Lee Hyung-pyo's cinematography has captured every detail with a very high level of artistry, including the very fittingly extravagant coloring. The battle in the end could have been a bit better planned and shot, but succeeds in highlighting the agony and the Deus-ex-Machina element quite nicely.

Despite its lagging and the occasionally excessive melodrama, "Seong Chun-hyang" is an impressive film that benefits the most by the direction, the acting and the production values and is quite entertaining to watch, even today.

Review by Panos Kotzathanasis

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"Seong Chun-hyang" is directed by Shin Sang-ok, and features Choi Eun-hee, Kim Jin-kyu, Do Kum-bong, Heo Jang-kang, Lee Ye-chun, Han Eun-jin. Release date in Korea: 1961/01/28.

 

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