A brief review by Jeffrey Overstreet, originally posted in February 2001.
Director – Im Kwon Taek; writer – Kim Myoung Kon; based on “Chunyang,” the pansori song by Cho Sang Hyun; in Korean, with English subtitles; director of photography – Jung Il Sung; editor – Park Soon Duk; music – Kim Jung Gil; art director – Min Un Ok; producer – Lee Tae Won. Starring – Lee Hae Eun (Hyangdan), Lee Hae Ryong (Lord of Soonchun), Kim Hak Yong (Pangja), Lee Hyo Jung (Chunhyang), Choi Jin Young (Governor Lee), Gok Jun Hwam (Lord of Okgwa), Lee Jung Hun (Governor Byun), Yoon Keun Mo (Lord of Goksung), Hong Kyung Yeun (Kisaeng Leader), Kim Sung Nyu (Wolmae) and Cho Seung Woo (Mongryong). Lot 47 Films. 120 minutes.
Chunhyang feels like an ancient fairy tale that has been given a fresh coat of paint. Unfortunately, the paint is the most interesting part, as the story is told broad strokes and offers few surprises.
It’s about a young prince who falls in love with a courtesan’s daughter, and pledges his everlasting love to her. When he is called away because of his father’s work, young Chunhyang is deeply troubled. Things get worse when a new governor moves in and demands that she be his courtesan.
The story is highly predictable, and the characters fail to become more than colorful archetypes. But wow… “colorful” is the way to describe this gorgeous, elaborate imagery.
Your opinion of this film will probably rise or fall based on your reaction to its style: it is presented like opera, a story in which small realistic details of day to day are underplayed, while emotions are blown up huge and loud. The story is narrated by an expressive, gravelly voiced storyteller who sings the narration. I realize that this is a traditional form of storytelling, but I found the narrator distracting and intrusive, and wanted to know more about the characters.
Thus, while the story “rang true” as a parable, the storytelling failed to engage me. The only thing that kept me watching was the colorful, graceful cinematography.