INTERVIEW: Singing Story, Korean Master's "Chunhyang" Comes to America
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE/ 01.04.01) — At first blush, veteran Korean director Im Kwon Taek‘s new film, “Chunhyang” seems aligned with the lyrical beauty of Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou‘s female-driven Chinese period pieces. They are, after all, concerned with a strong-willed female’s struggle in a patriarchal society. However, Im’s
stubborn Korean-ness quickly dissipates this idea, as his inventive narrative crosses time periods and gender politics to provide a pleasure all its own.
Chief among Im’s preoccupations is the dying art of Korean pansori (an
ancient musical art form) and indeed the film opens with two men on an empty
stage. One beats steadfastly on a heavy drum, while the other “sings” the
story of “Chunhyang.” (Perhaps the best way to describe pansori’s use in
this particular film is to imagine Robert Johnson as a musical accompanist
to “Romeo and Juliet.”) The pansori singer performs in front of a modern-day
audience the story is told. While a bit awkward to the Western ear at first,
once it becomes attuned to pansori, the comparisons to American Blues music
seem quite appropriate.
Despite the lush photography and epic grandeur of the film (over 8000 extras
and 12,000 costumes were used), it is a very simple story, almost naively
so. Chunhyang is the daughter of a courtesan and Mongryong comes from noble
stock. They marry in secret, but when Mongryong is away in Seoul, a new
governor comes to the village and demands Chunhyang as his. When she
refuses, she is beaten and sentenced to death. Her only hope is that
Mongryong return in time to save her. The story is fairly straightforward,
plotting is minimal, and the use of pansori in telling the story distances
us from the protagonists’ struggle. However, like much of Shakespeare, the
brash melodramatics (a scene where Chunhyang is bound to chair and beaten is
particularly squeamish) does get the blood boiling.
indieWIRE spoke with Im Kwon-Taek in Los Angeles during a two-day stopover
between the New York Film Festival and his native Korea. Struggling through
an iffy translation and Im’s taciturn demeanor, what follows is our
conversation about Korean film crossover, feminism and the art of pansori.
indieWIRE: This past May, “Chunhyang” was the first Korean film ever selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival.
Im Kwon-Taek: “Sopyonje” (1993) was sent to Cannes but was not accepted. It is very flattering that “Chunhyang” was chosen, as Cannes is a major step towards worldwide recognition. I am still amazed, in fact.
iW: The French have been very supportive of your work and Cahier du Cinema editor, Charles Tesson said “of all the Asian cinemas, Korean cinema has been most unfairly ignored.” Why do feel this is so?
Im Kwon-Taek: One of the reasons Korean films fail to gain recognition with
foreign audiences is because films from certain countries, say Chinese and
Iranian, have become a distinctive genre in and of themselves. The
popularity of these countries’ cinema is why it’s sometimes hard to draw
peoples’ attention to Korean films. Korean films have yet to establish their
own identity for international audiences.
iW: “Chunhyang” also has the distinction of being the first of your films to receive theatrical distribution in the United States (via Lot 47 Films). Among your ninety-plus features, why do feel it has stuck out?
Im Kwon-Taek: “Chunhyang” was originally written around 200 years ago and is
the most loved folktale in all of Korea. It has, in fact, been adapted for
the cinema fourteen times before my version. While I was making this film, I
received so much help from so many people who love the story and I think
their devotion to the material shows in the finished product. This may well
be a reason that the film has struck a chord. Furthermore, I feel it has a
universal element that people from different countries can relate to.
iW: Can you fill me in on the cultural importance of the story inside Korea and why you chose to adapt?
Im Kwon-Taek: As a story, “Chunhyang” has many, many pleasures. The female
protagonist belongs to a lower class, while Mongryong, the male protagonist,
belongs to a noble family. Chunhyang shows strong resistance to
authoritarian powers and is a very strong female role model and Mongryong
returns from Seoul to enact revenge for her. This type of story is very
interesting for Korean audiences. There is also a lot of comic relief and
the story, of course, has a happy ending. This provides hope, showing how
one can transcend class differences, which was a very topical subject for
both feudal and modern-day Korea.
iW: It has a very feminist bent, as does much of your work. Is this a conscious decision of yours before selecting a project?
Im Kwon-Taek: I think it comes completely from my “lived” experience, though
I have no intention of being a “feminist.” In Korea, women have been
traditionally oppressed, not treated like human beings. We come from a
feudal society after all. However, in times of crisis, such as war, it is
the woman who raises the children and keeps the family together. This is
what I’ve experienced in my life and why, perhaps, I am drawn to strong
portrayals of women in my films.
iW: You used pansori both in “Chunhyang” and “Sopyanje.” Why are you drawn to this ancient art?
Im Kwon-Taek: I think pansori is the best form of traditional Korean art. In
my childhood, I could hear pansori everywhere. However, as Western music and
Western educational systems were introduced in Korea, we have been
neglecting our own music. I think that we, as Koreans, need to better
understand our own music and culture. This is why I made the film
“Sopyanje” (where pansori was used heavily) and through this experience, I
was able to make the film, “Chunhyang” where I was able to create a harmony
between the visual (the film) and the aural (pansori).
iW: Your work recalls some other Asian filmmakers, particularly the work of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, yet it is also unique in its Korean-ness. Do you feel an affinity with these other filmmakers?
Im Kwon-Taek: Since we are all Asians, affinities between our films and
cultures can be easily found. But I personally have been trying to
represent particular aspects of Korea life and culture for a long time, so I
believe my films are quite distinguishable from other Asian films.
iW: The word “epic” has often been used to describe your films. Do you feel that this is an accurate description?
Im Kwon-Taek: It may be because I tend to look more at the social life of
people then the aspect of an individual’s life. That’s my tendency.
iW: When he first saw “Cleopatra” (1963), Jack Warner said, “If every person who’s in the picture comes to see it, we’re gonna break even.” Is this the case in Korea with your films? Are they wildly popular?
Im Kwon-Taek: Only a few of my films have been popular successes in Korea. I
have a small, but dedicated audience that sees all of my films, I think,
because I try to examine serious aspects of Korean life and not just aim for
commercial success. I try to make films about the real life of Korea and
enough people feel that I make a valid contribution to Korean cinema, which
is why I can continue to make films.
iW: What do you feel American audiences can take away from watching “Chunhyang”?
Im Kwon-Taek: American audiences may very well not be interested, because I
am not well known in the United States. So it may be very natural for audiences not to come see my films. (laughs) However, I am not too worried about it.
[Ryan Mottesheard is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]