Chunhyang is the protagonist and title of a Korean legend, most recently filmed by Kwon-taek Im and shown at Cannes. It's a fairly straightforward medieval romance, the basic elements of which are the roots of many fairy tales, fantasy novels, etc. A governor's son, Mongryong, falls in love with Chunhyang, who is the low-born daughter of a courtesan. (Luckily for my enjoyment of the story, she is not only beautiful, but strong-willed, educated, intelligent, and a skilled poet.) Naturally, when his parents find out that he's not only fallen for but secretly married this girl, he has to leave her--for one thing, he has to take the Confucian Chinese-style imperial examinations to see if he can earn a high post. While he's gone, the new governor--a harsh man--hears of Chunhyang, and decides that since she's effectively a courtesan herself, she must submit to him. Does she? does Mongryong come back for her? is there any way out of it?

Now, this story has been filmed more than a dozen times, novelized more than a hundred, and features in the storytelling tradition of Korea, "pansori." What makes this film special is the way in which it integrates pansori and film. Sometimes the reciter's lyrics overlap the dialogue, sometimes it's descriptive narrative, and sometimes we're watching the reciter on stage with a contemporary audience of modern Koreans (the movie itself is set in the 13th century). This is more than a film gimmick; it lifts a fairly simple and slow-moving story into something sublime. I found the pansori and the music something close to trance-inducing; other filmgoers were rather jarred by it. I recommend finding this film at the local art house theater or on video next year, and experiencing it for yourself.

Korean culture is very old and many-layered, with inheritances from China and legacies passed on to Japan, and ancient indigenous traditions. This is reflected in the story; you'll see Chinese calligraphy, Japanese motifs, references to Chinese folk tales, incredible Korean scenery, and so on. Korea isn't something that most non-Koreans think about very much, so that's one more reason to watch this beautiful film--it was even the first Korean film ever screened at Cannes.