Among the most popular old tales in Korea—or so various sites inform me—is that of Chun Hyang, the beautiful daughter of a courtesan, and of Chun Hyang’s efforts to remain faithful to her husband, come what may.
I happened to come across a highly abridged version of The Tale of Chun Hyang on Scribd, read it (it was just six pages long) and liked it enough to try and see if I could get a novel-length version. I couldn’t get one—but what I found was that this tale seems to be to Korean cinema what Beauty and the Beast is to Western cinema: done and redone since the first moving pictures began. There have been over twenty versions made of this story, some of them now gone missing. The original story has been retained in most versions (including this one that I’m reviewing); there’s a TV series dating from 2005 (Delightful Girl Choon Hyang) which sets the same story in modern-day Korea and gives it a typical K-drama touch; and there are ‘what-if’ scenarios that have been spawned from The Tale of Chun Hyang.
But, on to this one, and what it’s all about. The story begins in the provincial town of Namwon, where we see a young man (Kim Jin-kyu) riding slowly along on a horse, accompanied by his servant Bang-ja (Heo Jang-gang) on foot. They pass by various people, and from stray remarks passed by the onlookers, one gets to know the identity of this rider. This is Lee Mong-ryong, the son of the governor of Namwon. Mong-ryong is studying for the examinations to be a civil servant…
… though he doesn’t seem to be doing much studying, as he goes about sightseeing in Namwon, guided by Bang-ja, who is a local man. As they stand in a tall pavilion by a lake, Mong-ryong looks out—and sees, faraway, some young women under a grove of trees. A swing has been set up from a branch, and a girl is standing on it, soaring high as her friends push the swing. Mong-ryong is so enchanted by the sight, and so mesmerized by the girl (even though he cannot see her face), he asks Bang-ja who she is.
Bang-ja, fortunately, has recognized the woman. This girl, he informs Mong-ryong, is the beautiful Chun-hyang. Chun-hyang’s mother used to be a gisaeng (defined as a ‘professional singing and dancing girl’, but more generally a courtesan). Chun-hyang’s father, however, was a nobleman from Seoul, and Chun-hyang has been brought up as a noblewoman. Educated, accomplished, genteel.
By now, Mong-ryong is so intrigued, he wants to meet this paragon. Go and fetch Chun-hyang, he tells Bang-ja. Bang-ja says there’s no point; her mother may have been a gisaeng, but Chun-hyang is not, and she will not come. Mong-ryong, all said and done, however, is the master, so Bang-ja has no choice but to agree. He goes to where Chun-hyang (Choi Eun-hee, who was in real life the wife of the film’s director, Shin Sang-ok) and her maid/friend, Hyang-dan (Do Geum-bong) are still standing.
Bang-ja passes on Mong-ryong’s message, and the answer is as expected: no, never. Chun-hyang, who is somewhat shy, merely retreats in confusion; Hyang-dan is the one who tells Bang-ja off. How dare he, and how dare Mong-ryong. If Mong-ryong is supposed to be studying here in Namwon, he should devote himself to his studies, not go looking for girls.
Bang-ja only has time to grab one of Chun-hyang’s shoes (she had taken them off to climb onto the swing, and they’re still lying on the ground), and he’s off. Chun-hyang and Hyang-dan protest and call him back, pleading for the shoe, but to no avail: Bang-ja hurries back to Mong-ryong and tells him. This serves to intrigue Mong-ryong even more: just what sort of girl is Chun-hyang? Mong-ryong takes the shoe from Bang-ja and goes to find out for himself.
As soon as Mong-ryong arrives, Chun-hyang ducks behind the tree. When he apologizes for bothering her and offers her her shoe back, Chun-hyang—by now red with embarrassment—tries to push Hyang-dan forward to take it. Mong-ryong insists that the shoe’s owner take it herself, and this allows him to get a closer look at Chun-hyang. And he’s completely smitten.
The next scene moves (somewhat unexpectedly) to a night at Chun-hyang’s home. Chun-hyang’s mother Wol-mae (Han Eun-jin), says that she (Wol-mae) has had an odd dream: she saw that a huge blue dragon had come down to Earth and carried Chun-hyang away. For a man, says Wol-mae, that would mean that he will pass an examination… before she can get about to conjecturing on what it would mean for a woman, she asks Chun-hyang whatever happened to that governor’s son whom Chun-hyang has been corresponding with all these days?
Shortly after (and even without letting us hear Chun-hyang’s answer to that question), Mong-ryong arrives. He meets Chun-hyang’s mother and formally asks for her permission to marry Chun-hyang. Chun-hyang’s mother says that that isn’t really necessary: what matters is his parents’ permission. Mong-ryong has to, reluctantly, agree that that is hardly likely to be forthcoming. Even though he doesn’t say it (he doesn’t need to), he knows that his parents aren’t going to take kindly to their only son and heir marrying a lowly former gisaeng’s daughter, no matter how pure and good the girl.
Wol-mae is gracious enough to understand (she is also, though she doesn’t say so to Mong-ryong’s face, savvy enough to realize that a governor’s son, and that too a nobleman whose prospects seem pretty bright, is a good catch). She simply says that if he will give a personal note, the word of a gentleman, that he accepts Chun-hyang as his wife, that will be enough. Mong-ryong is earnest and eager, and immediately agrees.
The note is a short verse, in which Mong-ryong vows undying love for Chun-hyang. As limitless as the sky, as unchangeable as the Earth, he writes. Until the sea dries up and the stones become stairs, I will love Chun-hyang, and this I swear before all the gods in the world.
Chun-hyang’s mother calls for wine to celebrate the wedding. It is (no matter how unorthodox that may sound to modern ears) apparently a legal wedding, and we later see everybody in Namwon referring to Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong as husband and wife.
Even though they do not really live in the same house. Mong-ryong has obviously confided in his mother about this ‘wedding’, but has kept it a secret from his father, who’s not likely to approve. [Which, of course, was the reason for this cloak-and-dagger affair of the personal note]. But Mong-ryong spends much of his day with Chun-hyang at her home, and all is bliss.
Until the day news arrives from the capital: Mong-ryong’s father has been transferred to Seoul, to take up an important post there. Chun-hyang’s mother is delighted: Chun-hyang will get to go to Seoul, to leave this provincial life behind and assume her rightful place as a lady.
… but that is not to be. Mong-ryong comes bearing news of the consequences of this development. His father has ordered Mong-ryong to leave the next day for Seoul, escorting his mother and the family shrine. When Mong-ryong spoke to his mother about taking Chun-hyang with them, she shut him up. What was he thinking of? That Namwon knows of his ‘marriage’ to Chun-hyang is something she has probably reconciled herself to, but that the girl should come with them to Seoul: no, never.
Mong-ryong, being the filial son that he is, has to bow before his parents’ wishes. All he can do is to reassure Chun-hyang of his undying love and hope—perhaps—that someday they will be united again. He leaves Namwon, miserable, with an even more miserable and heartbroken Chun-hyang seeing him go. Before he leaves her, however, Chun-hyang gives Mong-ryong something to remember her by: a jade ring, its never-ending circle a symbol of her eternal love for Mong-ryong.
Chun-hyang is not left long to pine for Mong-ryong and grieve over their parting. Namwon has a new governor as a replacement for Mong-ryong’s father. This man, Byeon Hak-do (Lee Ye-chun) arrives in town at the head of a large and impressive cavalcade. Within a matter of hours, Byeon Hak-do’s made it amply clear that he intends to use his position of power to its fullest. The local populace, their woes and welfare, their hopes and dreams, be damned.
One thing Byeon Hak-do is especially interested in is the women. He says he’s heard that the women of Namwon are exceptionally lovely; have all the gisaengs in town lined up for my inspection, he tells his assistant.
But each of the registered gisaengs who are shortly presented before Byeon Hak-do is, to his eyes, imperfect. One has too flat a chest, another no looks to speak of. Another, who says she’s sixteen, is surely—as the governor tells her, scornfully—the mother of an eighteen-year old.
Are there no other gisaengs in town? Byeon Hak-do raves. Just this sorry lot of ugly old crones? The scared assistant diffidently mentions Chun-hyang, adding that though she herself isn’t a gisaeng, her mother was. And that it’s an acknowledged fact that Chun-hyang’s beauty is unsurpassable.
Summon her, orders Byeon Hak-do. So Chun-hyang, scared and puzzled, is brought before the governor. He is impressed with her beauty, and is straightforward, brutally blunt in his order: she is to get ready to serve him.
A horrified Chun-hyang refuses, and when an increasingly angry Byeon Hak-do tells her that she is committing treason by refusing to obey the command of the governor, she flings back at him: would being unfaithful to her husband not be as heinous a crime?
Chun-hyang tries every tactic: she pleads with Byeon Hak-do; she tries to convince him that she is not a gisaeng and that she can never be another man’s. Byeon Hak-do, initially so eager to have her, ends up being so angry with Chun-hyang that he has her tortured and thrown into jail. Come Byeon Hak-do’s birthday, there will be a huge and lavish feast, where the main entertainment provided will be—the execution of Chun-hyang.
All our heroine can do is now sit and weep and wonder: where is Mong-ryong? Does he have any knowledge of her plight? Why does she dream odd dreams of scarecrows and cawing crows? Is she destined to die without ever seeing his face again?
Seong Chun-hyang was one of the first South Korean films to be made in colour, as well as one of the first cinemascope ones. It’s therefore a fairly landmark film in the history of Korean cinema.
What I liked about this film:
The basic story of it, which is pleasantly fairy tale-like. Yes, perhaps some would think it regressive in today’s context, with its emphasis on Chun-hyang’s chastity and her stubbornness when it comes to loyalty to a husband who seems to have utterly forgotten about her. On the other hand, it is also a story of a woman’s loyalty, and of her strength of character in remaining true to her word: Chun-hyang does not falter; she is not cowed by the governor’s power, or frightened by his threat of having her executed.
There are other good bits about the film: the views of the countryside, of the interiors of homes…
… and Choi Eun-hee herself, who I thought lovely in her avatar as the imprisoned Chun-hyang, even more beautiful than when she’s all made-up and dressed in her gorgeous silks.
What I did not like:
The very fact that both the lead characters, who are supposed to be in their teens, are played by actors significantly older (and looking it) than they’re supposed to be. Unconvincing.
Plus, the progression of their romance is so sudden and so abrupt that it fails to really register. Eventually, this is what made me wonder why Chun-hyang was so completely devoted to Mong-ryong: I couldn’t see when and how they actually fell in love (unless those few moments of simpering under the tree when he hands her her shoe can be counted).
As always, when I’ve seen two versions of a film (or read a book and seen its cinematic adaptation), I love to compare: what works in which version, what doesn’t work, and which I liked better.
In the case of Chun-hyang, the work I’ll be comparing Seong Chun-Hyang to is the much later film, Chunhyang (2000), directed by Im Kwon-taek and starring Lee Hyo-jeung in the title role, with Cho Seung-woo as Mong-ryong. Im Kwon-taek’s film begins in a contemporary setting: a theatre to which patrons are flocking to attend a 5-hour long pansori performance (a storytelling-and-singing act consisting of a singer accompanied by a drummer). The story being sung is that of Chunhyang, and as the performer begins singing, the scene shifts into the Joseon period, and the lives of Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong. The entire story is punctuated by the man’s singing, and—very occasionally—the scene shifts briefly back to the stage, where the pansori performance is underway.
This later version of Chunhyang was, for me, utterly captivating. The two leads are actually just about as old as Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong are supposed to be: Lee Hyo-jeung about 16, Cho Seung-woo about 19, so the believability of their story is enhanced. Secondly, the love between them is shown in a more believable manner: it starts off more as infatuation (closer, perhaps, to lust?) on Mong-ryong’s part, and a painful shyness on Chun-hyang’s—but after their ‘marriage’ and the initial headiness of their relationship, it grows quieter, softer, more intimate. Something so simple as the two of them riding through the meadows together, his arms cradling Chung-hyang as he sits behind her, makes it easy to see how these two have grown closer, have actually fallen in love.
Also, the pansori singing. This punctuates the narrative at brilliantly timed places, helping the story move forward, and in different ways. For example, when a despairing Chun-hyang wonders if Mong-ryong is gone forever, the singing takes over the audio as a background song, talking of her pain, expressing what—if she herself had said it—might have sounded too unreal to be actual dialogue. Or, when the two young lovers are making love, heated and passionate, the words of the song become innuendo-riddled, ribald. Which would have, if actually said, made the whole thing ludicrous—but done this way, only makes it more erotic. (That said: yes, there’s nudity and sexual content in this film. Done tastefully, though).
This, therefore, becomes one of those instances where I’ve loved a recent version of a film while only just about liking the old version. Seong Chun-Hyang isn’t bad; Chunhyang is memorable, romantic, beautiful.