Cannily released by its American distributors to arrive in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here we have yet another lavish Asian period drama, only this time without the martial arts.
Set in feudal Korea, Chunhyang tells the simple story of the son of a provincial governor who falls for - and then secretly marries - the title character, the headstrong daughter of a local courtesan (that's "concubine" to you). When he is called away to Seoul to study for a government position, he must temporarily leave her behind, as his family's name may be ruined by his marriage to a woman beneath his station.
Three years later, a wicked new governor takes over the province - one with designs to make the beautiful Chunhyang one of his own courtesans. When she refuses to submit to him on account of her loyalty to her absent husband, the plot thickens considerably.
Im apparently ruffled some feathers among purists in his homeland by taking this classic folk tale - a very Confucian fable about loyalty for loyalty's sake - and adding a bit of modern emotionalism to it by making Chunhyang's potentially tragic sacrifice an act of love, not duty. Still, it's a lively, enjoyable film, beautifully photographed in a golden light reminiscent of oil paintings.
However - and this is a BIG however - Im also employs an unusual structural device by having much of his story told in running commentary by a pansori, a traditional narrator who in is this case is an elderly man who stands on a stage and describes the events in a singsong fashion, screeching and grunting and chanting the words out to the beat of a drum.
It's an interesting approach that frames the story in an artificial, highly theatrical way (the performances of the actors are similarly stylized), but despite his frequently moving poetry, the pansori and his loud, gravelly voice quickly wore out his welcome to these American ears. There are many scenes which would have worked perfectly with just Im's lush visuals and atmospheric sounds. But instead of simply taking in the quiet audio cues - the creak of a swing, the rushing of wind through leafy trees, the plunk of water droplets in a river - we have to listen to this man howl and moan and sing. A Korean friend who was familiar with the dying pansori tradition didn't mind. As for me, after a few minutes it drove me up the wall.