From Korea to the World: A reflection on Chunhyang (2000 film by Im Kwon-Taek)

“The wild geese desire the sea, the crabs desire their holes, and a butterfly desires a flower.”

It was, perhaps, a desire to showcase Korean culture to the world that drove celebrated Korean director, Im Kwon-Taek, to give the world a glimpse of ancient Korean society through p’ansori, a unique method of storytelling that is traditionally performed live and on stage. In retelling the legend of Chunhyang to a global audience, Mr. Im not only reinvented the narrative experience of a known epic to his local audience but also presented his international viewers a colorful representation of medieval Korean society and its culture. This attempt was succesful as the 2000 film “Chunhyang” received numerous accolades worldwide such as a nomination in the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

"Chunghyandyun" (original title) Director: Im Kwon-Taek
“Chunghyandyun” (original title)
Director: Im Kwon-Taek

The film begins with a scene set in modern-day South Korea featuring a p’ansori´ singer, kwangdae, who performs the Chunghyungga (the story of Chunhyang) in front of an audience with a varied demographic. The kwangdae then tells the main narrative of the film: a Romeo-and-Juliet romance set in 18th century Korea, but with a happy ending. A romance story which has perhaps inspired the blooming of local romantic films and TV dramas which have recurrent themes of love between classes. Chunghyungga, the story being told in Chunhyang (2000), is wrapped with the themes of 1) young and careless romance that has matured into the virtues of sacrifice and perseverance, 2) system of hierarchy in politics and domestic affairs, and 3) display of ancient Korean culture. These themes built up an appealing plot that became a surving oral traditional art which made its way into the modern cinema.

The film work is basically a retelling of Chunghyungga as being perfomed through p’ansori, but with dramatized sequences. The film switches back and forth with the p’ansori singer and the telenovela-esque scenes. It is vital to note that the dramatic scenes were synchronized with the kwangdae’s story, which is either sung or spoken. The pace and mood of the drama depended largely on the singer’s tempo and melody. For example, there is a scene where the servant, Pangja, is tasked to look for Chunhyang. As Pangja frolicked his way into the woods, the kwangdae performed the narration in a similar ecstatic and delightful manner. The viewers are confronted with a narrator who knows how to influence emotions as they experience the film. Also, there are times when the singer takes over the voice of the actors in the drama, as to emphasize a significant dialogue. The typical Chunghyungga performance takes more than five hours, but the film sliced it down to around two hours, maintaining the essential story plot and significant narrative lines for imagery and emotional appeal. Without the p’ansori narration, the main romance story would perhaps come out as a typical modern period drama with the same overused plot.

In addition, the production and its design are not to be ignored. Creating a period drama is a costly undertaking. Costumes, set design, location, set pieces and other cultural motifs have to be meticulously prepared. The film Chunghyang features beautiful landscapes, sufficient village structures, wardrobe, and numerous supplementary actors; determinants of a highly–budgeted film.

Furthermore, Chunghyungga is famous among the local audience and has been made into film numerous times and retold through various art forms. Koreans are familiar with the story, as well as the p’ansori performance. Thus, a film about a p’ansori performance of Chunghyungga that is targeted to the local audience would be would not be appealing. Im Kwon-Taek, perhaps, aimed at showcasing the beauty of Korean culture to the world by re-presenting the art of p’ansori and re-packaging the story of Chunghyang. With the production and the performance as a feast to the senses and emotion, the film is made to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the Korean culture to the rest of the world.

Celebrated Korean director, Im Kwon-Taek.
photo from: http://www.biff.kr

In other words, Chunhyang (2000) is made to be appreciated and experienced by non-Korean film viewers. The p’ansori performance, the impressive production, the heroic and persevering love, and the nostalgia for ancient culture, all of these work to depict the “Korean-ness” (Lee 2005) of its thriving nation, as seen in the preservation of its culture and in its embrace of modernity and progress.

Chunhyang (2000) IMDB

References:

Clark, Donald T. Culture and Customs of Korea. Greenwood Press: London, 2000. Pp72-73.

National Academy of Korean Language. An Influential Guide to Korean Culture.

Karten, Harvey. “Chunhyangdyun”. Harvey Karten. Retrieved 12 November 2013.

“Pansori”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 10 November 2013.

“Chunghyang (2000 film)”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 10 November 2013.

“Chunghyungga”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 10 November 2013.

Lee, Hyangjin (September 1, 2005). CHUNHYANG: Marketing an Old Korean Tradition in New Korean Cinema. NYU Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.ph/books?id=s4oA19by0uYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false; 10 November 2013.

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