Two cinemas weave — though not seamlessly — together in Chunhyang, South Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-taek’s adaptation of Chunhyangaa, a legendary Korean folktale that follows the journeys of two lovers, one poor and one aristocratic, as they face problems within Korea’s ancient class system. The two cinemas in question are traditional film cinema and pansori, a Korean storytelling custom where a vocalist tells a story accompanied by a percussionist playing a buk, a traditional Korean drum. Its roots come from the Korean for “sound” and “a place where many people gather.” In a way, this makes it a type of cinema that predates film by hundreds of years.
For me, pansori was harsh at first. It felt out of place, the grating transitions back and forth between the live pansori performance in modern day South Korea and the dramatic portrayals in 18th century Korea too cobbled-together to resemble a harmonious story. But then I surrendered to its slow, sometimes arrhythmic tempo, and its strange, lithe magic was an experience I haven’t felt in a movie since. By intertwining traditional storytelling techniques with a (somewhat) contemporary one, we as an audience are able to experience firsthand the tensions that exist in a culture between old and new.
Chunhyang is an ideal gateway film into the cinema of Korea, territory that can often seem daunting to Western moviegoers due to the century-spanning political baggage that stretches from the Joseon Dynasty to the Korean War to current events. But the sweep of the region’s moral tides encompasses a generally universal understanding, and this film is full of simultaneously heart-wrenching and understated pathos as we watch forbidden trysts and suspenseful compromises unfold. It’s a folktale, but the ache of its themes will always be, perhaps unfortunately, timeless.