In his youth, the Korean director Im Kwon Taek churned out dozens of melodramas, gangster flicks, action pictures, and costume dramas. A few years ago, he recalled, he was watching an old film on Korean television. “It looked so familiar,” he said through a translator. “I thought perhaps I’d seen it before. In the end, I realized that I’d directed it.”
Chunhyang, his 97th and most recent film, opened in New York last week. This adaptation of a Korean tale in which a courtesan’s daughter defies a lustful governor and remains faithful to her scholar-husband draws upon the traditional Korean art of pansori (musical street theater) to create a visual and aural extravaganza. Shifting between exquisitely choreographed scenes of 18th-century courtship, marriage, and martyrdom, and a contemporary pansori singer whose guttural, atonal chanting is punctuated by drum beats and the murmurs of a live audience, Chunhyang seems at once ancient and modern—a unique blend of folklore and cinema.
The 64-year-old director grew up in Cholla Province, where pansori originated, and came of age amid the searing divisions of the Korean War. “Many members of my family joined the Communist Party,” Im said. “After the war, many disappeared or were killed. Those who remained were social outcasts, continually under government surveillance.” As a homeless teenager, Im worked for a manufacturer transforming American military boots into shoes for civilians; later, when his employers switched to producing films, they hired him as an errand boy. He made his debut as a director in 1962 and completed over 50 films in the following decade.
“At the time, I was not concerned with film as an art,” he said. “I just lived from day to day, without hope or plans. But gradually, I realized that my life and my films were inseparable. And I wanted to give my work some meaning.”
Still, it took some time for Im to shake his B movie reputation. In 1973, unable to find backing, he produced Jab-cho (Weed)—his first serious effort as a director, and a commercial failure. “I lost a lot of money,” he recalled. “But people in the Korean film industry began to regard me differently.” Beginning in the 1980s, he garnered international acclaim for films such as Surrogate Mother (1986), a period melodrama about a low-born woman who bears a child for a noble clan, and Sopyonje (1993), the story of an itinerant pansori performer who blinds his daughter in order to improve her singing. Beyond the sufferings of women and the class conflicts of Korean society, his work has often focused on the slow and painful processes that bring an artist’s voice to maturation.
Pansori is a demanding art both for performers and audience. “The drummer is not simply keeping time—he must also sometimes lead the singer,” Im explained. “And the audience must respond actively and participate in the performance. In Korean we say ‘maestro of the ear’ for someone who has learned to listen on a very high level. By combining the rhythms and harmonies of pansori with cinematic images, I wanted to make even beginning listeners able to appreciate its beauty.”