Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I got nothing: A Chunhyangdyun Review

Pretty poster, boring movie.
People can usually appreciate a respectable work of art. I’m no aficionado, but it usually doesn’t take a scholar to recognize beauty.

No matter how beautiful, however, no matter how original, without depth or meaning a piece of art is useless. I like a good still-life, but see if I’ll sit around and stare at it for two hours.

This is the sentiment I had while watching the 2000 movie Chunhyangdyun. Directed by Kwon-taek Im, the movie adapts the old Korean folktale of the same name. The general story is that Chunhyang, a young courtesan’s (kisaeng) daughter, marries Mongryong, a governor’s son, in secret. Mongryong soon after follows his father to Seoul to complete a government exam, but Chunhyang cannot follow him; if their marriage is found out, Mongryong will be banned from taking the exam and also be disowned by his father. After Mongryong leaves, the replacement governor, Hakdo, makes advances on Chunhyang. She rejects him, remaining loyal to Mongryong, and is beaten and eventually sentenced to death for her disobedience. In the end, however, Mongryong comes back and saves Chunhyang.

No, I didn’t put up any spoiler alert stickies. The reason, however, is because every Korean, the likely target audience, knows this story; it is even said that Chunhyang represents a Korean woman ideal, the ever-faithful woman. When adapting this widely known story, what is important is not the story itself, but the way in which it's presented.

Perhaps the selling point of this movie, then, is the mixture of a pansori performance and a dramatized, cinematic performance. A few shots show the pansori singer with the drummer playing by his side, performing and singing to his engaged audience. The rest of the movie resembles more of an actual feature film. The pansori singer narrates and sings over these cinematic sections, his words perhaps even directly lifted from his performance. It blends the two formats of the movie together, and the presentation itself is original.

However, there isn’t anything compelling beyond the visual and musical aspects. What separates Chunhyangdyun from, well, good movies, is like what distinguishes a lasting piece of art from a simple painting. There is no substance to Chunhyangdyun. There is nothing evocative, meaningful, or lasting.

The acting, for one, is subpar. I will admit that it may have to do with the direction, and that the stiff movements and the shallow delivery of lines are meant to infuse the movie with a dignified quality, almost a reverence for the historical Korea this movie is portraying. That is all well and good, perhaps, but only to an extent. With the unbelievable quality to the script delivery, I don’t believe in the characters, and therefore I don’t feel for them. Governor Hakdo, played by Lee Jung-hun, comes the closest to being somewhat believable, but with so little screen time it’s not as though he could have developed his character that much anyway. In the end, the characters truly resemble statues, the actors neglecting to give them any depth.

The worst part, however, is the pace. The story itself is not very long or detailed, but people stay for a two hour pansori performance for the way in which it’s presented; the talent of the singer, the quality of the music, and the poetic lyrics make it worth watching in full. Heck, most people know an opera’s entire story before the performance even starts. The audience stays not for the plot’s twists and turns, but for the amazing singers, beautiful music, maybe even for the sets.

But in Chunhyangdyun, this story is just dragged through the mud (maybe even car-dragged Hana Yori Dango-style), and there’s nothing really stellar in the movie for me to overlook this fact. The dialogue is not compelling in any capacity, for one, and lacks emotion and even subtle tension. And not only that, the main conflict of the movie doesn’t even show up until forty minutes in! Before that is the incredibly boring courtship between Chunhyang and Mongryong. There is some romantic tension and whatnot, but so little that it's negligible. What’s worse is that the movie is incredibly forgettable even after there is a more tangible conflict; the slow pace prevents any effective buildup to the climax.

Maybe I should just blame the premise of moralistic stories in general. What is there to work with, I suppose, with a folktale in which the good are purely good and the bad are purely bad? There is no room for developing round characters. In an adaptation like Chunhyangdyun that is apparently meant to stay faithful to the original work, perhaps this is much more of a masterpiece than I am giving it credit for.

In the end, though, this movie is one still-life that got way more attention from me than it deserved.


PS: Thanks as usual to Wikipedia for the poster image.

PPS: If you’re interested in finding this movie to watch, keep in mind that it is now ten years old and also was not widely released, as far as I can tell. It is, however, available on Netflix, and some sites do sell the DVD.

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