I admit that my review of Chunhyangdyun might have been skewed by the Chunhyang story itself. After all, it was a little hard for me to like the folktale considering the incredibly antifeminist message of the story. Many fairytales and folktales include those elements, but I guess what disturbs me more is that Chunhyang herself is meant to represent the ideal Korean woman.
There are a few details in the movie that initially suggest a break from the mold. When Mongryong first sees Chunhyang, his servant Pangja tells him that Chunhyang is not too easy to woo; although she is a courtesan’s daughter, she is “well read, and writes poems.” While the subtitles also note that she is “arrogant,” you could also interpret it to mean that she is headstrong compared to other women of the time.
Awesome! An educated, self-assured heroine. What’s not to love?
But the awesomeness sort of stops there. I’m not sure if the original Chunhyang story includes the supposedly headstrong and educated heroine, but this specific interpretation certainly does not suggest that she is anything but pathetic.
The fundamental problem is that, while the story is supposedly about Chunhyang, it’s more about what happens to Chunhyang. She is a victim, her life completely dictated by or revolving around a man. She is tortured by a man (Governor Hakdo) for not having sex with him. Even when she is doing something “noble,” that is, staying faithful to her husband, she is still under the influence and control of that very man (Mongryong). She is chaste, but her entire existence is somehow dictated by Governor Hakdo or Mongryong. Without her husband around essentially constructing her identity, giving her rights through him, she has none.
It’s messed up. While the ideal Korean woman, then, is incredibly loyal and chaste, she is also a servant lacking an individual, independent identity.
From what little I understand, however, the ideal is changing in modern South Korean society. With the greater amount of Western influence, women are gaining more rights in all areas. At the same time, rapid change (especially change that, in my opinion, is happening so quickly that there is little reflection or actual consideration of the implications of these changes) isn't necessarily good. Divorce rates have skyrocketed, when before divorce was unthinkable. Beauty standards are also becoming more and more unrealistic (hopefully there'll be a future post on the popular ssangapul surgery).
What’s interesting to me is the fact that South Korean society remains conservative in other ways; for example, while divorce rates are way up, cohabitation before marriage is still frowned upon (see this BBC article). The combination of Western and South Korean cultures creates a society that I imagine (emphasis on imagine since I have no firsthand experience) is extremely complex and, perhaps, contradictory. Here's an article on the Shinsedae, the generation of South Koreans born in the 1960s with particularly conservative values. The article's author Park Sun-Young discusses the contradictory aspects of this modern generation of Koreans (namely a new form of nationalism), stating that "the new generation. . .would go to McDonald’s for hamburgers after burning the U.S. flag at a candlelight vigil in a protest against America. They do not think it is contradictory to accept the American culture on one hand, while claiming to condemn a U.S. action."
When I go to South Korea this summer, I really have no idea what I’ll find. I’ve only heard of Korea from other people, through academic articles, watching subjective K-dramas, and reading flippant little blog posts like this one. I’m curious to see how what I’ve read, how this combination of “Western” and East Asian/Korean cultural influences, actually pans out.
The End (of the tangent)
So yeah. The whole antifeminist thing is not the only reason I didn’t enjoy Chunhyangdyun; it really is just a poorly made movie. But it certainly gave me more reason to dislike it.