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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Seamless storytelling
ravishes audience


Bullet Chunghyang At: 6:30 p.m. today at Waikiki 1

Hawaii Internaional Film Fesival

By Burl Burlingame

IF anyone doubts that things are better in Korea than they used to be, check out this film. OK, several hundred years ago, it was all right for women to be treated like property and beaten to death, but they also had great mountain views, no pollution or rubber running-shoe factories, they had spicy food and fabulous fabrics.

"Chunhyang" is the story of an old-fashioned romance, you know, the kind where boy meets girl, demands she marry him, they do, they hit the hay for an idyllic few weeks, then he goes away to Seoul to study for some sort of government-service job and the marriage must remain a secret because they come from different classes, then she is coveted by the evil governor, then she is beaten to lameness and sentenced to death for not making whoopie with the governor, finally everything hinges on whether Husband #1 passes his final exams in time to return and rescue her.

This is a well-known legend in Korea, a classic tale, and singular because of the way it assumes women are property, and also because it celebrates fidelity-unto-death. As performed by Pansori singers, it moves Korean audiences to tears.

With extraordinary cleverness and skill, director Im Kwon Taek structures the film around a live Pansori performance, essentially, a guy with a drum accompanying another fellow who gospel-blues-shouts the tale. Imagine B.B. King performing "The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner" a capella and you get the idea.

This is interwoven with a gorgeously photographed and staged recreation of the lovers' lives and laments. (Anyone remember Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in "Cat Ballou"?) There is no disconnect between the film performance of the Pansori singer and the actors performances on film -- the cultural continuity between modern and mythic Korea becomes the hidden agenda.

Some of it is quite sensual. I've never seen mere fabrics look quite so ravishing.

I was reminded of "Ever After," a recent film that took a standard western myth and updated it with wit, verve and relevance. "Chunhyang" is in that league, and rather more elegant and adult.

Technical credits are top-drawer. Highly recommended.

This is the third of five Hawai'i International Film Festival Golden Maile
nominated feature films that we will be reviewing through
Thursday. Winners will be announced Friday.

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