Taking its place as the Raise the Red Lantern of the new, manifold Korean film outbreak, Im Kwon Taek’s Chunhyang is poised on the stage of tradition, feminist emancipation, and visual pageant. But Im’s approach isn’t quite that simple, and Chunhyang is torn between a meta-movie ambiguity, an immersion in traditional Korean folkways, and a desire to hawk the ancient cultural forms to the world’s mezzobrow. Until recently, the Korean film industry has practiced an import-export insularity that relegated homegrown films to occasional fest appearances; even so, it’s been a fiercely cinemanic culture, and Im might hold a record (outside of India, anyway) for having made 96 movies before having his 97th released stateside. Of the first three Korean films to see U.S. runs?alongside the relatively arsonous Lies and Nowhere to Hide?Chunhyang is the most monumental, but its restless, intemperate telling of a classic lovers’ legend is hardly de rigueur.
The reason for that is unforgettably vocal?Im has visualized a Tristan and Isolde-like post-medieval fable that is normally performed as pansori, the bluesy throat acrobatics of which wallpaper the movie from beginning to end. Standing on a stage with a seated drummer, facing an actual contemporary audience, pansori champ Cho Sang Hyun croons, screams, barks, and yowls his way through the tragic tale?it’s like B.B. King on steroids, particularly when you consider that pansori performances can last four hours or more. Im freely cuts back to Cho and to his shout-back, dancing-in-the-aisles audience, but most often the singing serves as narration. Chunhyang herself (Lee Hyo Jung) is a beautiful, principled maiden with a courtesan for a mother; once she is spied by Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the governor’s son and an ardent student, it’s only a matter of bicker and tussle before the two are swearing eternal devotion to each other. Having consummated their self-declared matrimony, the union is thus sundered by circumstance: Mongryong’s father is being transferred and, being of a lower class, Chunhyang must wait behind. In years following, a new governor considers Chunhyang a courtesan by law, and when she refuses to obey, all hell breaks loose.
Typically for a folk tale, there are narrative potholes (why does Mongryong stay away so long, and why doesn’t he write to Chunhyang?), but Im’s movie approaches a seething, primitivist beauty that evokes Makhmalbaf and parallels the contrapuntal textual investigations of Resnais. (The pansori is often hollered in ironic stereo with the characters’ actual dialogue.) Less Westernized than China’s lovely but overpraised Fifth Generation products, Chunhyang reworks the idea of movies into a proto-trad modernism.
Movies get a reworking, too, in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed 1956 The Mystery of Picasso. One can imagine how this semi-doc might’ve fascinated postwar filmgoers, but today it comes off as a hagiographic rimjob for the century’s most lavishly commodified artist. Documenting the offhand creation of more than a dozen paintings?many sketched upright on “transparencies,” so only Picasso’s confident lines and brushstrokes are visible?Clouzot’s self-congratulating movie does no service to Picasso, or art: The work’s potential impact is diminished by the gimmicky setup and Picasso’s flip approach. Clouzot is operating with a very bogus bourgeois notion?that we can “see” what goes on in an artist’s head, and that such seeing can provide us with insight or pleasure. Shirtless and rehearsed, Picasso is lordly, and Clouzot joins him in believing that his every jot is masterful. George Auric’s bombastic score only salts the friction burns.