Pansori, which roughly translates into 'songs in a place of entertainment', has a long tradition in Korean performance art. The typical pansori is usually performed by two people, with one person playing the puk, or drum, while the other 'sings' a lengthy narrative to the beat. In addition to providing a rhythmic foundation for the performance, the drummer (gosu) also provides emotional emphasis for key parts of the 'song' by varying the tempo or providing shouts of encouragement, or chuimsae, to the singer. The singer (myeongchang), who usually sports a handkerchief and fan, recites the story, which can go on for hours, with a combination of sori (singing), aniri (recitation), and pallim (gestures). Though there used to be twelve pansori, only five of them are still performed today, including Jeokbyeokga, Heungboga, Sugungga, Simcheongga, and Chunhyangga. It is the latter that the South Korean film "Chunhyang", which saw a limited release in North America in 2000 and a DVD release late last year, is based. And though the film's initial slow pacing and narrative style take some getting used to, overall, "Chunhyang" is a pleasant take on an age-old folk tale.
The plot of "Chunhyang" is your typical story about two lovers separated by class, such as the doomed romance between a penniless writer and a showgirl seen in "Moulin Rouge", or even the pairing of a corporate shark and a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold seen in "Pretty Woman". In this case, the forbidden love is between Mongyoung Lee (Cho Seung-woo), a governor's son, and Chunghyang Sung (Lee Hyo-jeong), the beautiful daughter of a courtesan, who marry in secret after a brief courtship. Unfortunately, Mongyoung cannot tell his father about his class-defying union, as it will not only bring shame to the family name, but also potentially jeopardize a future appointment to the Royal Court.
Their married bliss is short-lived though, as the governor is transferred to Soeul, and Mongyoung is obligated to follow, leaving Chunhyang behind only with a promise to return some day. Unfortunately, years go by, and a new governor (Lee Jung-hun) takes office in the region, who wishes to have Chunghyang as his mistress. Determined to remain faithful to her absent husband, Chunghyang refuses the governor's demands. Enraged by such insolence, the new governor has Chunghyang beaten, thrown in prison, and sentenced to death.
"Chunhyang" is framed by a modern-day pansori performance by Cho Sang-hyun and Kim Myung-hwan, which provides the voiceover narration for the film. However, for those unfamiliar with the art form, this does take some acclimatization, as it is not singing in the traditional Western sense. The 'singing' of a pansori is more like chanting, and unlike other forms of song, there is an emphasis on creating a slightly rough and husky sound in the throat, or tongseong. Thus, Cho's 'narration' is often at times musically dissonant from what one would expect, and can even be jarring against director Im Kwon-taek's vibrantly captured scenery or handsome leads.
However, once the initial shock has worn off, the use of pansori as narration does work, such as when guards are dispatched by the new governor to detain Chunghyang. At other times, the reactions of the audience and performers are effectively used to heighten the emotional pull of a scene, such as when Mongyoung sets out on the road to be reunited with Chunghyang, or the pained expression on Cho's face as he recounts Chunghyang's repeated beatings by the new governor.
"Chunhyang" has the distinction of being the first Korean film to ever compete in the Cannes Film Festival, and is a much deserved global debut for Im Kwon-taek, who is considered to be Korea's leading director, with a filmography that stretches four decades and numerous awards to his name. True, it may be rather unconventional in execution, but the film's sheer beauty and familiar yet heartfelt story make "Chunhyang" a rare and uplifting moviegoing experience, whether you are familiar with pansori or not.