Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
If Im Kwon Taek hadn’t already made 96 films in his 39-year directing career, you might guess that he’s a young Korean disciple of Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Like such Zhang films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, Im’s Chunhyang is a pictorially ravishing period piece with an up-to-date feminist moral. But the 64-year-old director’s strategy is trickier than that: Contrasting the tale’s traditional roots with its contemporary telling, Im has crafted a film that’s both folkloric and modernist.
The movie opens with performer Cho Sang Hyun tellingsinging, reallythe ballad of Chunhyang, an 18th-century love story that echoes tales from both East (The Peony Pavilion) and West (Tristan and Isolde). Although she’s the daughter of a courtesan, Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung) is a proud, independent girl. When “handsome and righteous” Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo) is transfixed by the sight of Chunhyang riding a swing in the forest, his servant warns him that the young woman is arrogant and well-read, “like a noble’s daughter.”
Indeed, Chunhyang rejects Mongryong at first, despite the fact that he’s the son of the province’s governor. Soon, though, she’s won over by his passionand his fine penmanship. (This is a romance of the Confucian elite.) The couple weds secretly, and, at Chunhyang’s insistence, Mongryong writes a vow of eternal love on her skirt. But only Chunhyang’s mother knows of the marriage, and when Mongryong moves to Seoul to study for the civil-service exam, he can’t take his wife along.
Chunhyang’s loneliness turns to terror when Mongryong’s father is replaced by a new governor. The corrupt, imperious Governor Byun (Lee Jung Hun) demands to inspect all the local courtesans and is outraged when Chunhyang is not among them; any daughter of a courtesan, he announces, must also be one. Summoned to the court, Chunhyang refuses Byun, saying that she’s married. For this refusal, she’s beaten and sentenced to death. Can Mongryong, who can’t possibly abandon his studies before the exam is administered, return in time to save her?
With its blackhearted villains and comic servants, scripter Kim Myoung Kon’s adaptation of Chunhyang follows venerable theatrical motifs; Im’s style is also stagey, even when his stage is nature itself. He and cinematographer Jung Il Sung compose exquisite shots, notably one in which the two lovers, both dressed in white gowns, cavort on a field of red leaves. The camera also follows the couple to bed; in depicting violence, however, Im relies mostly on suggestion. He films Chunhyang’s flogging in a long shot, relying on the implications of the scene rather than close-ups of the woman’s agonized face or bleeding limbs.
Im doesn’t have to simply imagine how viewers will react. Throughout the movie, he returns to Cho Sang Hyun’s performance of the fable, delivered in a guttural indigenous style known as pansori. The director films both Cho and his listeners, switching between the legend and its bard. Sometimes Im overlaps Cho’s storytelling with dialogue; Chunhyang’s defiant cry of “One and only love” bleeds into Cho’s shout of the same slogan. And when Chunhyang is beaten, Im cuts to women weeping in the audience. (More such reaction shots are reportedly in the approximately 10 minutes of footage trimmed for the movie’s two-hour overseas release.)
The intercutting of story and storyteller serves several purposes. It brings to life the pansori style of performance, which has inspired other Im films but is alien to non-Asian audiences. It also emphasizes that Chunhyang is a fable from an ancient tradition, not a modern drama. Although the heroine’s defiance of the governor has a contemporary resonance, other details of the tale seem nearly inexplicable today: Mongryong’s willingness to entirely ignore his true love for three years while he studies, for example. Given the story’s musty notions of duty, a more straightforward adaptation could have seemed merely a cultural-exchange lesson or an exotic curio. Presented as a dialogue between pansori and cinema, however, Chunhyang is both classic and vital.
If you’re going to see only one movie this month about the link between violence and the contemporary mass media, skip the one that stars Robert De Niro. Whereas 15 Minutes dithers dishonestly about TV’s zeal for the very brutality that fuels the movie, Series 7 quite literally cuts to the chase: It opens with a very pregnant woman, Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith), coolly shooting a man in a convenience store. Dawn has no point to make, either personally or philosophically. She’s simply the reigning champion of The Contenders, a TV “reality show” that requires its contestants to kill or be killed.
Written and directed by Daniel Minahan, who used to be a producer for the Fox News Network, Series 7 doesn’t waste time imagining a civilization where the appetite for grotesque public spectacles can be channeled or curbed. So deadpan that it’s initially disorienting, the movie presents a world where TV programming and the law of the jungle have effectively merged. Participants on The Contenders are not chosen from a pool of enthusiastic applicants who can put four sportscasters in order by their dates of birth. Everyone in America is a potential contender, and anyone who’s selected but declines to play will be hunted down and killed anyway.
If Dawn can win one more round, she’ll be freed from the show in time to have her baby under more or less normal circumstances. For this final showdown, The Contenders has sent Dawn back to her Connecticut hometown, where she faces five new antagonists. Among them are Connie (Marylouise Burke), a middle-aged nurse whose skill with a syringe might prove useful; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a well-armed high school student with very supportive parents; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an ex-gay testicular-cancer patient who just happens to have been Dawn’s teenage soulmate. In a perfectly pitched lampoon of how TV programs use old footage, The Contenders unveils a goth music video Dawn and Jeff made as high schoolers, to the soundtrack of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Sometimes pop-culture parody is so accurate that it’s indistinguishable from its target, and the first part of Series 7 is too eerily convincing to be very funny. Everything is dead-on, from the handheld video footage and breathless voice-over commentary (by Will Arnett) to the zooming bull’s-eye graphics and galloping theme music (by Girls Against Boys). As soap-opera developments begin to mingle with the gunplay, though, the movie’s absurdist humor becomes more pronounced. Outlandish as they are, the final developments almost come as a relief: Series 7 is satire, after all. CP