Pansori is a Korean traditional form, songs performed before an audience in a chant/sing-song style that tell a tale–a narrative or epic story that can run for many hours. In his exquisitely wrought new film, Chunhyang, veteran Korean director Im Kwon Taek uses such a song performance to tell a folktale, a fable of young love that crosses forbidden class boundaries. (He wisely contains it within a comfortable two-hour time span.)
Cho Sang-hyun, the pansori singer, begins, spotlit on a darkened stage, accompanied only by a drummer who occasionally gives chuimsae–calls of encouragement–to the storyteller. Cho has a full, gruff, chesty voice, with a variety of stylized vocal techniques that initially will sound strange to westerners unfamiliar with the form. It is not at all unpleasant to listen to, though, and as the ear becomes accustomed to the sound, the variety of expression, emotion,and tone that this actor/writer/singer delivers is astonishing. The song runs through the length of the film, interwoven with dialogue by the characters. Cho is also the writer of this song, based on a traditional story, and the lyrics are rich in ironic and often humorous commentary on the events transpiring on the screen.
The young lovers are Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the son of the governor, and Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), the protected daughter of a retired courtesan. They are both very young, very beautiful, and in the full flush of blooming adolescent sexuality. Against not only the custom of caste, but in violation of law, they secretly marry: he writes on her skirt in elegant calligraphy, "Like the sun and the moon, my love will never change."
Mongryong’s father is appointed to the King’s cabinet and the family goes off to Seoul. Mongryong promises Chunhyang he will return to her, but three years go by with no word from him. Nonetheless, she remains faithful to him. A new governor arrives, corrupt and tyrannical, and he demands the favors of Chunhyang. Custom dictates that, as the daughter of a courtesan, she, too, must make herself available. She refuses, proclaiming her love is only for her husband; she is then brutally beaten, jailed, and sentenced to death. (The resolution will not be revealed here.)
The remarkable accomplishment of Im’s film is that he allows the pansori singer to remain at the heart of the work; the visuals follow the song, rather than the song providing background for the visuals. Handsomely photographed, lushly costumed, and lavishly produced as the film is, it never takes the focus from the art of the singer. There is a strong interest in landscape and weather within the song, illustrated with appropriate views of mountains shrouded in fog, heavy rains on a river, flowering trees.
As the story progresses, Im returns the camera to the singer from time to time, drawing back from the first spotlight-focused views, to show that he is in a modern auditorium with a large and rapt audience in his thrall. The audience, too, as is the custom, calls out encouragement to the singer, occasionally clapping along to the beat sustained by the drummer. Their participation is not unlike that of the congregation in a southern Black church, underscoring their identification with the song/sermon/story; it is not a stretch to find a blues-like sound in some of Cho’s singing.
The story of love forbidden by class difference (as contrasted, for example with Romeo and Juliet, where the problem is a family feud, intra-class) adds yet another dimension of interest, for the song makes pointed commentary about the rigidity of the system as well as its potential for corruption.
But mostly, it is simply an old and traditional love story told with accomplished artistry that is absorbing in Chunhyang, and both the story and the artistry transcend the particular culture from which they have emerged.