Im Kwon Taek’s Chunhyang is a lush, visually arresting costume drama set in 18th- century Korea. One of the rare Korean films distributed in this country, it has a romantic story that will remind some viewers of Romeo and Juliet, and a sweeping grandeur that recalls Akira Kurosawa epics like Kagemusha and Ran. With just that description, many moviegoers will know right away that they are not interested in Chunhyang, which doesn’t star Julia Roberts or involve teenagers and gross-out jokes. This review is aimed at the minority who are still interested in foreign films and wonder if Im’s acclaimed movie is worth devoting an evening to.
It’s worth taking care with these potential viewers, because we have passed the era when the vast majority of foreign films that played the Triangle deserved any self-respecting cinephile’s attention. The current moment is a bad one for subtitled movies because Hollywood, globalization and the electronic media have decimated most national cinemas around the world. Consequently, film festivals end up ballyhooing films they would not have touched 20 or 30 years ago. The same films then get U.S. distribution deals, earn enthusiastic reviews from the cadre of critics who rave over any foreign film, and then face art-house audiences that are inevitably divided, with a significant portion scratching its collective head and wondering what the fuss was about.
Chunhyang inspires that kind of division. People who are keen on Korean culture, lush period dramas and movies that vaguely recall Kurosawa’s historical epics will almost surely enjoy it, and should seek it out forthwith. On the other hand, filmgoers who are impatient with slow, languorous, old-style storytelling and films that lack any strong cinematic edge or bravura originality would do better to rent Seven Samurai and relive the glory days when such movies were brilliantly edgy and original.
As to why the film comes across as at once gorgeous, highly skilled and somewhat quaintly old-fashioned, it’s worth explaining that Chunhyang is Im’s 97th movie. It is, indeed, a cause for amazement–and a sign of how Korea’s cinema remained walled off from Hollywood’s devastation for much longer than other Asian cinemas–that any director could make close to a hundred films. That, folks, is career. Im is 65, and he directed his first movie in 1962. So when you hear him described as the venerable master, the greatest of Korea’s directors, you can understand how such titles might be richly deserved. Yet you might also ponder why you haven’t heard of him before.
Chunhyang is obviously the product of a sensitive, well-practiced craftsman. Based on one of Korea’s most enduringly popular folk tales, it takes place in a bygone Korea of fairytale beauty–a realm of elegant pavilions, sumptuous brocades and lovers as eye-pleasing as the protagonists of any mythic romance should be. The boy is the princely Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), son of the provincial governor. The girl, Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), is the stunning daughter of a former courtesan. Since they come from different classes, these two don’t belong together in society’s eyes. But their passion for each other is unquenchable, and they marry in secret.
The force that pulls them apart at first seems innocuous. Destined for his due place in the kingdom’s Confucian bureaucracy, Mongryong is ordered to Seoul to finish his education. Though Chunhyang acts as if it is the end of the world, he reassures her that it’s just a temporary parting and promises that he will send for her as soon as he graduates. Her premonition of disaster, though, proves more accurate than his carefree confidence. When the province gets a new governor (Lee Junh Hun), he immediately zeroes in on Chunhyang as a target for his lusts. She protests that she belongs to another man, but because she is a courtesan’s daughter, she belongs to the courtesan class and thus is fair game for the ruling nobleman.
Chunhyang resists with a heroic will, proving that she is ready to submit to public humiliation, torture and even death to maintain her fidelity. The governor, who brooks no challenge to his authority and seems to have ice water for blood, appears ready to test her resolve to its mortal limit. Her only hope lies in the possibility that Mongryong will return from Seoul in time to save her.
Though its story has a classic simplicity and cohesiveness, Chunghyang is not all of a piece. The first few minutes, when we take in the dream-like lyricism and rich colors of Im’s vision, are truly entrancing; given its legions of extras and general air of idyllic luxuriance (the press notes say that 12,000 costumes were created for the film), it’s easy to believe that this is the most expensive Korean production in history. But after that initial awe wears off, the film’s first hour-plus progresses at a genteel, historical-pageant pace that I found almost suffocatingly tedious. Fortunately, things pick up in the final hour, when the threats to Chunhyang grow chillingly brutal and the earlier romantic brightness gives way to the ominous hues of tragedy.
Speaking of the film’s capacity to divide audiences: Its story is “told” by Cho Sang Hyun, a famous practitioner of pansori, an ancient, opera-like Korean art form that blends music, dance and spoken and sung narrative. Intermittently throughout Chunhyang, Cho, accompanied by one musician, is seen on stage in front of a modern Korean audience that is clearly enthralled and delighted by his passionate rendition of the tale.
Some Westerners will no doubt share that reaction. After seeing the film I talked with an American who was absolutely captivated by this Korean musical form, which he compared with the blues and bardic poetry. I like Chinese opera, but Cho’s screeching struck me as akin to listening to a cat being strangled. Pansori, to be sure, is not for all tastes. The same can also be said for the beautiful but trying Chunhyang.
Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, from Scotland, is another visually distinguished film that’s bound to garner split reactions and qualified recommendations, although for reasons that are almost exactly the opposite of those associated with Chunhyang. Rather than a grand and old-fashioned work by an extremely experienced filmmaker, it’s a small and fashionably downcast work by a first-time director. And instead of focusing on mythic themes of love and devotion, it describes certain bleak miseries of a very mundane and modern nature. As with Im’s film, though, Ramsay’s will appeal to filmgoers attuned to its sensibility and subject; other viewers are likely to find it boring and off-putting to various degrees.
Set in Glasgow during the 1970s, Ratcatcher transpires mainly in a tawdry housing project during a garbage strike. “Depressing” describes both the milieu of the film and its effect. Shortly after the story opens, 12-year-old James (William Eadie) goes out to play in the squalid, rat-infested canal behind his apartment. When he comes back a short while later, one of his little playmates is lying dead in the canal, the victim of a bit of malevolent play gone dreadfully wrong. Though the kid’s body is soon retrieved, the death haunts the rest of the film, casting a pall over people–including James’ crude, unhappy parents, their neighbors and his other playmates–who often seem like they’ve suffered some sort of psycho-spiritual drowning.
Though it’s no one’s definition of a happy viewing experience, Ramsay’s film comes off as an odd but interesting combination of the gritty social realism of Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe, Ladybird Ladybird) and the psychological visual poetics of Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now). As do some Loach movies, it takes place in a British working-class world so carefully evoked that the thick Scottish accents require subtitles. Yet Loach’s political concerns don’t seem quite so central to Ramsay, who uses the movie’s squalid atmosphere and incidents (which include gang rape) to paint a subjective, almost dreamy picture of collective dysfunction.
Ramsay was previously a photographer, and her movie’s visual spell is its strong suit. Like hypnotic pictures floating up from some underwater disaster, her strangely insinuating images are the kind that swim into your subconscious and stick there, giving the film a kind of cumulative poetic impact that compensates somewhat for its threadbare and dispiriting story. Ultimately, Ratcatcher may be one of those chicly self-conscious films that is a bit too sure that despair and ugliness equal profundity. Yet its visual assurance and willingness to take risks also make it a promisingly offbeat debut.