The "Chunhyangjeon" is one of Korea's most iconic stories. Although its author and date of composition are unknown, it most likely originated as a work of pansori (probably from "Chunhyangga",the most famous pansori), a form of musical storytelling involving song and percussion, and was later adapted into prose during the reign of either King Sukjong (r. 1674–1720) or King Yeongjo (r. 1724–1776). Considering the importance of the source material, it is not surprise that it has been adapted more than a dozen times (16 probably) on cinema, with this, 1961 version by Hong Seong-ki being one of the first in color cinemascope in Korean cinema, along with Shin Sang-ok's own adaptation of the same story, which was screened at the same time.
Wol-mae is a retired gisaeng living in Namwon, whose daughter, Chun-hyang, is actually famous for her beauty in the area. Lee Mong-ryong, the son of a nobleman, is smitten by her beauty, and sends his servant to ask from her maid for the two to meet. As his man courts Chung-hyang's maid shamelessly, so the two youths start falling in love with each other, with Mong-ryong soon coming to Chun-hyang's mother to ask her permission to marry her daughter. Wol-mae has her reservations, particularly since she knows that his family would never agree for him to marry the daughter of a gisaeng. In the end, however, and under her daughter's pleas, she agrees and the two youths are married in secret. Alas, a bit later, Mong-ryong's 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 soon after, in prison.
To begin with, one has to mention that in order for someone to enjoy this movie, the viewer must have significant tolerance for both traditional folk Korean music, which is quite frequent and quite loud and for a style of acting that seems almost operatic in its theatricality.
Apart from this, Hong Seong-ki directs a movie that begins in rather playful fashion, with the romance of the youths presented in delightful fashion, while the one of the servants moves directly towards comedy. Mong-ryong's father's decision, however, turns the film into a hardcore melodrama, with everything happening after that, promoting the sentimentality of the narrative.
What is impressive, though, is that the one who reacts in the most excessive manner is not Chun-hyang, but Wol-mae, whose woes become part of the soundscape as much as the Korean folk songs. Yu Gye-seon gives a superlative performance in the part, essentially stealing the show with her excessiveness, although not always in favor of the movie.
The appearance of the distinct villain of the story, Governor Byeon, whom Choi Nam-hyun performs in the most fittingly majestic fashion, adds to the melodramatic sense of the narrative, but also moves it towards exploitation a bit, with the scene of the torture of Chun-hyang being quite graphic, and even shocking, particularly considering the era the film was shot.
Jeon Han-ik's cinematography finds its apogee in these scenes, along with the overall presentation of Kim Ji-mee's undeniable beauty as Chun-hyang, which permeates the screen as frequently as possible. The coloring however, is somewhat intense, with the emphasis on red being tiring to the eye, although this approach serves the purpose of highlighting Yin Myung-sun's impressive sets.
Talking about Kim Ji-mee, her rendition of Chun-hyang is also somewhat hyperbolic, although not to the point of Yu Gye-seon's ,while the scenes she is being courted and pretends to be unwilling are truly adorable. Shin Kwi-shik as Lee Mong-ryong gives the most measured performance here, with his presence being a well-sought break from all the theatricality.
"The Love Story of Chun-hyang" is a difficult film to watch, despite the impressive sets and the overall fast pace implemented by Hong's own editing, since the combination of love story, melodrama, and happy ending ends up disproportionally in favor of the second, while the soundscape and the theatricality will probably test the patience of any (western viewer).
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Love Story of Chun-hyang" + Full Movie"
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