It's celebrating a unique tradition of Korean culture, but unfortunately the first half is boring. It improved later, but by then I'd already started playing online bridge to give myself something to do and was only half-watching the movie.
That cultural tradition is "pansori", which has been proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Pansori is a musical poem that usually takes between four and six hours (but possibly longer) and is performed by a singer and a drummer. Well, that's the official description. Is that singing? I suppose so, but you might also call it theatrical chanting or possibly a dirge. Only five pansoris still survive, of which the longest and most famous is Chunhyangga, which is of course the source material for this film. Chunhyang is the name of its main character. It's had at least sixteen movie adaptations, including Korea's first talkie and a box-office smash in the 1950s that kick-started their post-war movie industry. Oh, and in addition Chunhyangga have been sung that lasted eight hours, which I think would melt my brain.
This movie is basically an illustrated pansori, except that the illustrations move. The pansori dudes respectively sing and bang their barrel drum. To all intents and purposes, it's sung narration. Lots of it. Loud and distracting. Imagine your favourite movie with intrusive narration that's frequently crowding out the characters and even draws attention to itself by having the camera periodically cutting away to more of the on-stage pansori. (The singer does theatrical things with a fan.)
Now imagine that it's not your favourite movie. Go a bit further and suppose in fact that you're clock-watching with more than an hour still to go. Oh dear.
The story in the bit where I was paying proper attention involves the young male heir of a government official. He's played by Seung-woo Cho and he's noble, scholarly and a bit pompous. One day he spots an attractive girl (Chunhyang, played by Hyo-jeong Lee) and decides to woo her. Unfortunately she's the daughter of a courtesan, which creates a social divide between them. Oh no! Cho fancies the arse off Lee (as well as respecting her as a poet and so on) and so bullies her into marrying him, but then has to deny the fact to his father if anyone asks, because admitting it would cause social problems.
Cho's the good guy, in case you were wondering. We're supposed to be on his side, even when he disappears to Seoul because his father's been reposted there and refuses to take Lee with him. Lee of course Stands By Her Man even when it's looking as if she'll die of old age waiting for him and the replacement governor turns out to be a chauvinist monster who thinks refusing to have sex with your social superiors is a crime punishable by death. This is where the film improves. I had no interest whatsoever in Cho's character, but seeing Lee stand up for her virtue is dramatically stronger, even if from a modern standpoint one might raise an eyebrow at what it's saying about feminine virtue. Chunhyang seems to define herself by her fidelity to a long-vanished and not entirely sympathetic husband, but then again this is bra-burning feminism compared with the stories you'll find in other cultures from the same historical period. At least it's putting the boot into class divisions and abuse of power by those who see themselves as superior.
The director's worth discussing. Kwon-taek Im has directed more than a hundred films and has been doing so for fifty years. Early in his career he was a commercial direstor, efficiently making up to eight studio films a year, but since 1980 or so his work has been art-house. In particular, he's seen as one of the most Korean directors. "I feel very conscious of my Korean-ness, and it has very much been my intention to deal with aspects of Korean tradition and culture." He's often made films about Korean history or folk arts. This isn't even his first pansori film, having done it before in Seopyeonje (1993). He's a big name in Korean cinema, regularly achieving both box-office success and lots of awards from domestic and international film festivals.
Im has clout, in other words. This was apparently the most expensive Korean film made to that date, with 8,000 extras and 12,000 costumes. If nothing else, you've got to admire the brass neck of putting all that into a pansori film.
Overall, I didn't really like it. I think the second half was probably good, but by then it had already lost me. Visually it looks amazing, but as a narrative it's struggling under the combination of pansori and teenage actors making their debuts in the lead roles. It would be ridiculous to call them bad, but they didn't make me care. (Cho has gone on to a reasonable if not stellar career, but as far as I can tell this was Lee's first and last movie.) However in fairness it was entered into the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and became the first Korean movie ever in the Competition Section there. I also admire the fact that Im made a big-budget pansori movie, even though I personally found the results hard to engage with. If you like experimental movie-making, this is for you.
Maybe, one day, I'll try again. Pansori will be an acquired taste, like opera. It didn't strike me as beautiful to hear, but you can't say it's not distinctive.
"Our enemy is not a river. Our enemy is the class that divides us."