If there were any justice in this world, Sang-hyun Cho would win every nation's equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar. Cho is a master of pansori, an antique Korean performance style in which a single virtuoso sings and speaks a well-known story, accompanied by a very austere drummer. If this calls to mind certain other modes of performance, such as China's Kun Opera or some Native American storytelling styles, it suggests none of the audacity or accomplishment of Cho's particular approach. Like a Korean Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Sang-hyun Cho is one part cigarettes and whiskey, and one part wild-eyed abandon. He doesn't so much tell the story as coax it, sing love songs to it, and push it brusquely on the shoulder to move it out of the way; he cries over the story, snickers behind its back, and finally lays it at our feet like a dead beloved. Cho sometimes appears entranced, but it isn't the usual Dionysian, self-loving kind of trance that Americans are accustomed to seeing onstage: Rather, it's the rat-a-tat fury of a Homeric story master. There are times when Cho seems to have touched the long white beard of God himself.
Sang-hyun Cho is the main event in South Korean director Im Kwon-taek's extraordinary Chunhyang. Indeed, I don't think I've seen such a spellbinding live performance on film since the first Richard Pryor concert movie. Like Pryor, Cho uses anecdotes to build a very personal and all-encompassing vision of life on earth. He doesn't just relate the facts: He gives you the whole cosmology of his personal take on existence, and the story is just a particularly juicy means to the end. But what a story!
Im Kwon-taek is a salty dog who, over the course of three decades, has made the long journey from directing grade-Z dreck (an early Im title is The Three Zany Hunchbacks) to becoming the unofficial archivist of traditional Korean culture on film. Chunhyang is his attempt to keep the pansori flame burning. In it, Im does something so seemingly retrograde that it's practically avant-garde. Cho tells the story--and tells it and tells it, throughout the entirety of the movie's two hours. Intercut with Cho's performance (which also plays out in voiceover) is a literal illustration of the classic tale of Chunhyang. And when I say literal, I mean literal: Cho says it, and we see it. If this sounds merely like a trip to the Korean kitsch store...well, yes, it does sound like that. But the plain fact is that Im has made a work of formal daring that recalls such rich and strange torments of the theatrical form as Alain Resnais's Melo, the Straub-Huillet film Moses und Aron, and The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir. Remember that synthesis of theater and film that Robert Altman wanted to achieve in the Eighties? Im has done it. Chunhyang has the extreme formal rigor and complex structure of Altman's Eighties work, with a key difference: Its agenda is emotional immediacy, not cerebral intake.
The story of Chunhyang seems as iconic as Peer Gynt or Faust. Mongyong (Seung-woo Cho), an 18th-century governor's son, falls in love with the stunning Chunhyang (Hyo-jeong Lee), daughter of a courtesan. They shred the sheets; they can't live without each other; they get married. He goes to the big city to finish his civil-service exams; she must remain behind until he can send a royal palanquin to bring her into the ruling class in proper style. A new governor (Jung-hun Lee) arrives in Chunhyang's town, and, in the Evil Landlord tradition of world drama, wants the favors of the courtesan's daughter. She resists; he lashes her to the "death chair" and beats her with wooden poles. Will Mongyong be true to the wife who's so true to him? Will he return to save her before Chunhyang's murder is served up as post-prandial entertainment at the new governor's big welcoming feast?
Like a brilliant pharmacist or a saucier, Im Kwon-taek is a grand master of titration. The way in which he brings together Sang-hyun Cho's bluesy, earthy, aggressive-then-embracing narration, along with images that deal knockout blows, amounts to the ballsiest sort of juggling act. The gamble that pays off is that the pansori narration, which, rather than delivering a Brechtian effect, achieves the opposite: It pulls us further into the story's passions.
The director's visual style is all his own and might be coarsely described as a mix of the lyricism of Tranh-anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya and the hustling physicality of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. But who would have guessed that Chunhyang's familiar story elements--the bucolic comedy, the unjust plight of the righteous heroine--would carry such raw power? What John Madden accomplished in the bloom-of-first-love scenes in Shakespeare in Love, Im turns into cherry blossoms that ripen like fireworks. It's the combination of sumptuous casting, spot-on imagery, and Cho's pansori performance that makes the film such a uniquely transporting and magical experience. Like Julian Schnabel's recent Before Night Falls, Chunhyang has a combined emotional and sensual effect that leaves you seeing stars.
Even as Im's film makes its way across the U.S., one critic after another is busy bemoaning this period as the Worst-Ever in the History of Movies. And it's true enough--provided your definition of "movies" extends all the way to Hollywood studio movies, which have never been worse. But in Asia and the Middle East, rapturous new film cultures are being born. And they're not all composed of smarty-pants enfants terribles, either: Im Kwon-taek is a man who has just made his "breakthrough movie" at the age of 64. As I sat watching Chunhyang with a rapt, breathless audience composed largely of middle-aged and elderly Korean-Americans, I experienced that feeling of collective elation that one encounters only a handful of times throughout a lifetime of watching movies. Whether or not Chunhyang gets listed in Variety as an "Art-house Hit," its particular gift is nearly one of a kind. And for me, it constitutes more than enough spiritual sustenance to get over the fact of Freddy Got Fingered.