Korea's leading director, Im Kwon Taek, has made 62 films in 38 years, but "Chunhyang," which had its world premiere at Cannes and has played other major festivals, this week becomes the first to receive a major theatrical release in the U.S. Since his films have been shown in various noncommercial venues in Los Angeles and Orange counties in recent years, it has become clear that Im is a world-class filmmaker with a vision that encompasses human experience so profoundly that it easily embraces social, political, historical and emotional aspects of life. Consequently, Im never seems merely preachy when he confronts life's harsher realities.
"Chunhyang" is a stylized folk tale that takes its title from the name of a beautiful courtesan's daughter (Lee Hyo Jung). She secretly marries the handsome son (Cho Seung Woo) of the governor of the province of Namwon who has promised to return from Seoul once he has completed his studies. In the meantime, his father has been appointed a cabinet minister in Seoul, and his replacement (Lee Jung Hun), a cruel, drunken despot, covets Chunhyang.
Im narrates this most beloved of Korean folk tales (of which there are about 120 variations) through recordings of Cho Sang Hyun, Korea's foremost singer of pansori, an ancient operatic form. Cho is seen briefly in performance before an enraptured audience--but what we hear he recorded 37 years earlier. He tells of Chunhyang and her fate in impassioned, keening, guttural tones that bring to mind flamenco songs.
The film grew out of Im's 1993 "Sopyonje," a stark tale, spanning 1945 to the early '70s--when pansori songs were displaced in Korea by Western pop--of a hard-drinking, hard-driving master of that form of music who wanders the countryside with his two foster children.
"I could not have made this film without having done 'Sopyonje' first, but I wanted to bring sound and image closer together this time," Im explains in an interview. "Chunhyang and pansori are the essence of Korean culture, the best form of our traditional art, but we're forgetting about pansori. I wanted to let people know about the pleasures of pansori, and I thought that through film it might be the easiest way to reach them.
"Lots of people thought it was wrong to make this kind of film, that it would not sell, but the same production company that backed 'Sopyonje,' Taehung, signed on."
Although it cost only $2 million to make, a bare-bones budget by Hollywood standards, "Chunhyang" is Korea's most ambitious production to date, requiring a four-month shoot, 8,000 extras and about 12,000 period costumes.
Im, a trim, compact man of 64, was speaking through an interpreter as he sat in a swanky West Hollywood hotel suite talking about his film last fall.
"A lot of scholars have tried to find out the source of the legend of Chunhyang, and last year they found a little evidence that it might be based on a true story. In Namwon, people visit what is supposed to be her tomb. It's not just a fairy tale, but a very strong story dealing with the oppressive class structure of feudal Korea. A number of things make the Korean people really connect with this story--for example, Chunhyang's being very faithful to the Confucian moral code."
Born in 1936, Im, along with his family, who were leftists, experienced very hard times in the wake of the Korean War. "We were very poor. I couldn't afford to go to school, but in Pusan, the temporary capital, there were some people who got together to try to make films. People were beginning to say, 'We can jump into the film industry and make some money.' One of my friends was working in the industry, and that was my introduction. I did every kind of menial work to earn money."
After a decade of churning out cheap, Hollywood-style action melodramas, Im began to feel increasingly dissatisfied with his career. "I started thinking that I'm getting older and how can I waste my life making this kind of cheap films. At that time, I was trying to compete with Hollywood films, but one day I realized that this way was stupid, that in every aspect--budget, technology, etc.--that my films would never meet Hollywood standards. I decided to make films that would show my own life and also those of the trouble-plagued Korean people and our history.
"This decision was very closely related to the political situation in the early '70s, with the coming to power of the military dictatorship and severe censorship. It was a dark age for Korean cinema, yet it was a great opportunity. American films would be restricted to 20 films a year, and the government decided to support quality Korean films. Ironically, this dark time would provide my best opportunity."