- Author: SHURE CHARLES LA
- Publish: Acta Koreana Volume 16, Issue2, p303~327, Dec 2013
Korean filmmakers have always sought inspiration in Korea’s long literary tradition. This article compares three recent films—Shin Han-sol’s
Karujigi(2008). Kim Dae-woo’s Pangja-jŏn(2010), and Choi Dong-hoon’s Chŏn Uch’i(2009)—with their inspirations from premodern Korean literature and examines how these traditions have been reimagined for modern Korean audiences. Karujigiretains one of the main characters of the original, Pyŏn Kangsoe, but replaces his female counterpart with a much more demure and innocent love interest. The film is notable for its inversion of gender roles, but it focuses solely on the first half of the original work, and so much has been lost thematically from the original work that it is almost unrecognizable. Pangja-jŏntakes Korea’s most famous love story, the tale of Ch’unhyang, and puts forth the servant instead of the master as Ch’unhyang’s lover. As a result, the idealism of the original is replaced by a more cynical and realistic depiction of Korean society at the time, a depiction that is perhaps more suited to a modern audience. Chŏn Uch’iis the most faithful to the themes and ideals of its inspiration. Through magic and wizardry, it brings its premodern characters into modern Seoul, showing that, in fact, some things never change, and some themes and principles stand the test of time.
The tactics adopted by these writer/directors met with varying degrees of success at the box office, but they show that interest in Korea’s literary traditions is still alive and well in Korean film.
Korean film , premodern Korean literature , Karujigi , Pangja-j？n , Ch？n Uch’i
Korean cinema has come into its own in recent years, and enterprising directors continue to seek out new material and new ideas. The genre of historical drama has always been popular in both television and film in Korea, and directors have long sought inspiration in Korea’s rich literary and folkloric traditions (Lee Y.G. 2004, 122–124). In fact, the very first commercial film produced in Korea by Koreans was the 1923 retelling of the classic story of Ch’unhyang, so it could be said that Korean film has its roots in these traditions.
Many of these early films, though, simply took advantage of the new medium of film to retell familiar stories. It wasn’t until relatively recently, with the surge in popularity of Korean film, that directors began to plumb the depths of these traditions and reinvent them to say something completely new. In the last few years in particular, there have been films that draw on specific popular premodern works, reimagining them for modern audiences. Three of these films are writer/director Shin Han-sol’s
Karujigi(2008; English title: The Tale of Legendary Libido), writer/director Kim Dae-woo’s Pangja-jŏn(2010; English title: The Servant), and writer/director Choi Dong-hoon’s Chŏn Uch’i(2009; English title: Woochi). Karujigidrew on a p’ansoriknown as The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoeor The Ballad of Karujigiand enjoyed only very modest success at the box office, bringing in an official total of 272, 648 viewers. Pangja-jŏnis the latest in a long line of films based on The Tale of Ch’unhyang, and it was considered quite a success with an official total of 3,035,116 viewers. Chŏn Uch’idraws its inspiration from probably the least well-known of the premodern works discussed here, The Tale of Chŏn Uch’i, but it saw tremendous success at the box office with an official total of 6,136,928 viewers; the Korean Film Council currently lists it as the 16th highest grossing Korean film since 2004.2
This article will examine each of these films in turn, comparing them to the premodern works on which they are ultimately based; consideration will be given to filmic elements, but the analysis will be from a primarily narrative perspective. In the final section, special attention will be paid to how the themes of the original works have been reinterpreted, and how effective these reinterpretations are as successors to (or usurpers of) the originals. In addition, we will examine what these reinterpretations say about how Korea has changed and continues to change, and how these writer/directors deal with the struggle between the desire to preserve tradition and the need to forge a modern culture and society.
2All statistics in this paragraph were taken from the Korean Film Council website: www.kobis.or.kr.
The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoewas one of the twelve original p’ansoriworks, and it was also one of the six works adapted to prose by Sin Chaehyo, the influential nineteenth-century p’ansoritheorist and patron. It was the only one of these six, though, that is not included in the five p’ansoriworks still performed today. Thus it is handed down today only in written form, with the most famous version being the one adapted by Sin Chaehyo; the following summary is based on this version (Kim T.J. 1995, 248–359).
The story begins not with Pyŏn Kangsoe, but with a woman named Ongnyŏ (which literally means “jar woman,” a reference to the female genitalia). She is famous not only for her lewdness, but also for the power of her sexuality; the men of the village have only to look at her and they fall down dead. She is driven from the village, and in her wanderings she meets and marries Pyŏn Kangsoe, the only man who proves capable of satisfying her libido. He proves to be a horrible husband, though. Ongnyŏ sells liquor to earn money, but Kangsoe squanders it all on drinking, gambling, and fighting. They finally find an abandoned house on Mt. Chiri and settle down there. Kangsoe does not change his ways, though, and when Ongnyŏ berates him for his laziness and tells him to collect some firewood, he wrests a
changsŭng(a spirit guardian pole) from the ground and brings it home. The remaining changsŭnghold a meeting and decide to punish Kangsoe, and they inflict all manner of diseases on him until he dies.
The second half of the story deals with the events that occur after Kangsoe’s death. With his final breath, he utters a curse, vowing to kill any man who lays a hand on Ongnyŏ. Once he dies, his body sticks fast to the floor. Then a long list of men, including a monk, an exorcist, and a street singer, come to take away the body and help Ongnyŏ with the funeral. All of them, however, have the ulterior motive of claiming Ongnyŏ as their own, and they are each in turn struck dead by Kangsoe’s curse. As they die, their bodies join his, stuck fast to the floor, and soon the room is filled with bodies that won’t budge. Finally, a man named Teptŭgi arrives with no designs on Ongnyŏ. He pleads with Kangsoe to lift the curse and release his hold on the bodies, and Kangsoe at last relents. Teptŭgi removes the bodies and returns home. It is likely that the original
p’ansoriended here, but Shin Chaehyo ends his version of the tale with a moral warning against lasciviousness.
The 2008 film, the fifth film to be made based on the premodern source material, begins with a prologue that sets the scene: the broken nose of a
changsŭng(this is the only time changsŭngare referenced in the film) becomes a phallic fetish that causes a crowd of strapping young men in loincloths to emerge from the mist and sexually assault anyone who looks at the fetish and utters the phrase, “I wonder what this is used for.” After the third and most public of these instances, the fetish is placed in a jar of one-hundred-year-old liquor and buried at the foot of the changsŭng. This leads to an imbalance in the ŭm(陰 ; negative or feminine energy) and yang(陽 ; positive or masculine energy) of the valley, with ŭmbecoming dominant, and this imbalance is manifested in a reversal of gender roles in the village, with women doing traditionally “masculine” work such as smithing and men doing traditionally “feminine” work such as washing vegetables in the river.
Years later we are introduced to Kangsoe, who, along with his older brother Kangmok3, sells glutinous rice cakes in the village. Due to an accident when they were younger—Kangsoe’s crotch catches on fire and Kangmok stamps out the fire with his foot—Kangsoe is lacking in male stamina and is the laughing stock of the entire village. One night, Kangsoe and Kangmok are by the river when they see an odd but enchanting girl—Talgaengi—dancing in the moonlight. Kangsoe immediately falls in love with her, and so he is dismayed one day when Kangmok brings her home and says that she will be part of their family from now on, presumably as Kangmok’s wife.
Kangsoe’s fortunes change when he rescues an old man from a trap in the woods. It so happens that this old man was the one who buried the fetish, and as a reward he tells Kangsoe where to find a magical liquor that will restore his manhood—but he warns him to take only one sip, lest ill fortune befall the village. Kangsoe finds the liquor and drinks the whole jar, after which he falls asleep. Summer turns to autumn before he awakens, and when he returns to the village he finds that all of the men, including his brother, have been conscripted to fight in a war. Kangsoe tries to resist the advances of the village women, but they ultimately awaken his libido, and while the men are gone he has relations with all the women. Eventually the men return, but the village suffers a severe drought. The old man determines that it is a lonely bear deity that is causing the drought and that it must be appeased. Kangsoe goes willingly into the cave and has intercourse with the bear, at which point rain finally begins to fall again. The villagers believe that Kangsoe is dead and hold a funeral for him, but the film ends with the revelation that he is still alive and working as a boatman.
Of the three films discussed in this paper,
Karujigiwithout a doubt represents the greatest thematic departure from the original material. Before we examine the significance of that departure, it is necessary to establish the theme of The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe. Simply put, Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ represent the clash between unbridled human impulse and the constraints of civilization. If human society and civilization are to succeed, then its constituents must subjugate their own desires and impulses for the good of the community. If everyone were to act according to their own whims, there could be no structure, no order. At the beginning of the tale, Ongnyŏ is a very direct expression of this threat to the social structure, threatening not only to break up marriages and families but also incapacitating the men of the village by occupying their minds completely with sex. Thus she is driven out of the village to make sure that the social order remains intact.
While Ongnyŏ represents an excess of feminine energy, Kangsoe represents an excess of masculine energy, and though the two find each other and form what would seem to be a match made in heaven, they still represent a threat to society. Their poverty forces them to live a life of wandering, but it is Kangsoe’s constant drinking, gambling, and fighting—all expressions of that excess of masculine energy, of course—that keep them mired in poverty to begin with. He is also the architect of his own demise.
Changsŭngare embodiments of the guardian deities of a village and are thus manifestations of the community’s will, so no upstanding member of society would ever dream of burning one for firewood. Kangsoe, on the other hand, though he could have easily used his strength to chop down a tree, deliberately plucks a changsŭngfrom the ground. Whether this is seen simply as a complete disregard for taboo or a sign of aggression against the community that rejected him, it is a clear blow against civilization. He pays for this insolence with his life, but he continues to wreak havoc on the community as a jealous, vengeful spirit, taking the lives of quite a few men who covet his wife. Kangsoe, as a symbol of unbridled impulse and desire, cannot be said to have won in his struggle against civilization, but he is defiant to the very end (and beyond), so neither can it be said that he ever really lost.
The Kangsoe that we meet in
Karujigi, though, is an entirely different character. In a comparison where the only real similarities seem to be the name of the protagonist and his legendary libido, figuring out where to begin when dealing with the differences can be a daunting task. It is probably best, though, to start with the most glaring difference between The Tale of Pyŏn Kangsoeand Karujigi: the absence of Ongnyŏ. Though she plays a crucial role in the original work, literally acting as the ŭmto Kangsoe’s yang, the only character in the film that comes close to being her counterpart is the bear in the climactic scene.4 Prior to this, though, that space is occupied by the odd and childlike Talgaengi, and Kangsoe’s relationship with Talgaengi tells us nearly everything we need to know about his character.
Much of the tension in the film comes from the perceived love triangle of Kangsoe, Kangmok, and Talgaengi. After Kangsoe drinks the magic liquor, he sleeps with every woman in the village. It is important to note, though, that Kangsoe never initiates these encounters; in fact, the women of the village line up outside his door to have a turn with him. There is one woman, though, whom he does not even think of touching: his brother’s wife, Talgaengi. When news comes back from the front that Kangmok has died in battle, Kangsoe resolves to look after Talgaengi as a sister. As the drought worsens, though, she comes down with a strange illness, and the village doctor says that the only thing that can cure her is sex with a man. Kangsoe resists the idea, but when the doctor says that she will die otherwise, he finally relents and has intercourse with her, crying as he does so.
Then, in the first of the film’s twists, Kangmok returns from the war, alive after all. Kangsoe is stricken with guilt and leaves home before Kangmok sees him, and when he learns that someone must have intercourse with the bear, he goes willingly. There is a second twist, though: Kangmok had originally brought Talgaengi home to be Kangsoe’s bride and had never taken her as his own. Unaware of this, Kangsoe goes to what everyone assumes will be his death, and even when he survives he disappears from the community, working incognito as a boatman.
The Kangsoe of
Karujigi, unlike his premodern namesake, is obsessed with the constraints and taboos of society and civilization. He distances himself from Talgaengi out of love for his brother; this brotherly relationship is one of the five fundamental relationships outlined in the teachings of Confucius and thus represents a building block of the social structure. His relationship with Talgaengi is even more complicated. He may distance himself from her physically, but he fell in love with her at first sight and never stops loving her. This unrequited love and the repression of his desire for Talgaengi play an important part in fueling his sexual escapades, as can be seen in the motif of the full moon. The full moon has, of course, long been associated with odd behavior, but in Karujigiit is also associated with Talgaengi, appearing for the first time very prominently when Kangmok and Kangsoe first see Talgaengi on the bridge.5 It appears three more times in the film: 1) on the night that Kangsoe realizes his new-found sexual power, 2) on the following night, when one of the village women finally succeeds in seducing Kangsoe, and 3) on the night he enters the bear’s cave. In the last two instances, it is the sight of the moon—and perhaps the thought of Talgaengi— that fires up his libido.
His sexual relations with the rest of the village women, on the other hand, are no more than physical encounters, and he seems to take little pleasure in them. In fact, in all the myriad sexual encounters depicted with the village women, we never actually see Kangsoe. Some of the encounters are shown from outside the room and thus we only hear the cries of the women, but even in the scenes inside his room, the women are on top and high-angle shots cut Kangsoe out of the frame. The focus is entirely on the women, and Kangsoe might as well have been a wooden
changsŭng.6 As if the line drawn between love and sex were not clear enough, Kangsoe confirms it for the viewer; at one point a group of village women sit around him giggling as he mopes, and when the village grandmother says, “I love you,” he sullenly shouts, “That’s not love!” before getting up and leaving. In some ways, Kangsoe seems more beholden to society’s norms and mores than any other character in the film. After all, none of the village women have any qualms about cheating on their husbands with Kangsoe.
In his relationship with Talgaengi, as well as in his basic distinction between love and sex, we can see that Kangsoe is very much concerned with honoring society’s rules. But his actions go beyond simply being bound by convention; rather than clashing with civilization, he actively fights to preserve civilization. The most obvious example is at the end of the film, when he enters the cave and engages in sexual intercourse with the bear. In
The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe, the coming together of Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ is a threat to society, but here in Karujigithe union of Kangsoe and the bear is the salvation of society. In this inversion of the traditional relationship, Kangsoe becomes, in fact, a culture hero.
There is one more episode in the film worth examining. It may at first seem rather odd and out-of-place, but it makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of Kangsoe-as-culture-hero. Before the drought, a high-ranking government official hears of Kangsoe’s legendary phallus from his daughter (who witnessed Kangsoe putting out a forest fire by urinating on it) and summons him to serve his country. This service however, is not military. “These days those Western bastards have come into our country in the name of trade and hold us in contempt,” the minister tells him, “So we’re going to have a big contest.” He asks Kangsoe to be his champion in this contest, and if Kangsoe defeats the Western champion, he promises to relieve Kangmok from duty and bring him home.
In what could be considered a commentary on international diplomacy, the contest turns out to be a literal penis-measuring contest. The champions strip from the waist down and soldiers bring heavy weights (two iron balls connected by a chain) and drape them over the champions’ erect members; the champion who supports the most weight wins. The Western champion goes first and manages a respectable three weights before his knees begin to buckle and he bows out. Kangsoe begins to struggle right away, but the minister’s daughter quickly rips the clothes off of a nearby court lady. Fire blazes in Kangsoe’s eyes and the weights begin to pile up. The count reaches eleven before he gives a mighty thrust of his hips and sends the weights flying high into the air and crashing down on the table where a haughty Westerner sits.
As with his sacrifice at the end of the film, Kangsoe’s actions here are most immediately motivated by his love for his brother. But there is no denying that he is acting as a proxy for Korea at a time when the nation’s presence on the world stage left much to be desired. He is even referred to as the champion (or representative) of Korea. Of course, Kangsoe’s feat changes nothing with regard to Korea’s place in the international community, but none of that really matters when you’ve just proven that your man has the bigger package. This cements Kangsoe’s place as culture hero for not only his local community, but for Korea as a whole.
3Kangsoe’s name is a homonym for the phrase “strong iron.” His brother’s name here, Kangmok, is a play on that and a homonym for “strong wood.” 4As noted above, Ongnyŏ’s name literally means “jar woman.” In Sino-Korean, “bear woman” would be “Ungnyŏ,” which is distinct, but similar enough in pronunciation to be reminiscent of “Ongnyŏ.” 5Also, while the term “Talgaengi” can have a variety of meanings in several Korean dialects, it is likely no coincidence that the first syllable of the name is a homonym for “moon.” 6The only time we see both participants in a sexual act is when Kangsoe “cures” Talgaengi; we also see Kangsoe when he has intercourse with the bear, although for perhaps obvious reasons we do not see the bear at the same time.
The Song of Ch’unhyangis, like The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe, one of the original twelve p’ansoriworks, but unlike its less fortunate cousin it managed to survive as one of the five works still in circulation today. It is, in fact, probably the most famous love story in Korea, and has been told numerous times in many different media; Pangja-jŏnis the nineteenth film to have been based on the story (Cho D.H. 2011, 188). Due to its popularity, there are numerous versions of the story that have been recorded and handed down, some cleaving to the style of p’ansoriand some adapting the narrative to the form of the novel, but they all follow roughly the same plot, differing only in details.
The story is commonly thought of as Korea’s version of
Romeo and Juliet, and it does bear some similarity to that play in that it tells of the trials of two young lovers. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous tale, though, it is not an ancient grudge between two households alike in dignity that comes between the lovers, but social status and the attendant expectations. Yi Mongnyong is a young yangban(aristocrat) scholar, while Ch’unhyang is the daughter of a kisaeng(courtesan). Mongnyong first lays eyes on Ch’unhyang during the Tano festival, when he spies her playing on a swing. Smitten, he sends his servant Pangja7 to summon her. Ch’unhyang’s mother, the kisaengmistress Wŏlmae, arranges a meeting for the two young people. After bargaining with Wŏlmae, Mongnyong goes into Ch’unhyang’s room and consummates their relationship. Their time together as lovers, though, comes to an end when Mongnyong’s father is appointed to a position in Seoul and his family goes with him.
Left all alone, Ch’unhyang despairs. The situation grows even more desperate when a new magistrate, Pyŏn Hakto, arrives in Namwŏn. Having heard rumors of Ch’unhyang’s beauty, he summons her to his bedchamber. When she refuses, saying that her heart belongs to another, he has her thrown in jail. Just when all hope seems to be lost, though, Mongnyong returns to Namwŏn in disguise. Having placed first in the civil service examination, he has been appointed secret royal inspector. He visits Wŏlmae and then Ch’unhyang in jail and assures them that he will set everything right. Still in disguise, he attends a banquet at the local government office, carefully watching Magistrate Pyŏn and his subordinates. Finally he announces himself as a secret royal inspector, arrests Magistrate Pyŏn, and frees Ch’unhyang, and the two of them live happily ever after.
Of the three films discussed here,
Pangja-jŏnfollows its original material most closely. Like Karujigi, though, there is an inversion of roles: instead of Ch’unhyang and Mongnyong forming a relationship, it is Ch’unhyang and Pangja who fall in love. As the title indicates, it is Pangja the servant, not Mongnyong the master, who is the protagonist. We are introduced to Pangja in the prologue as the narrator of the tale, when he seeks out a writer of popular fiction to tell him his story. This is necessary to present an inverted version of the original, something of a “behind the scenes” look at the story everyone knows and loves. Yet despite the sequences with Pangja and the novelist, as well as the initial voice-overs from Pangja that form bridges between these sequences and the ostensible flashbacks, the film goes to great lengths to maintain an objective perspective, both in the narrative sense—showing scenes that Pangja did not witness and never had knowledge of—and in terms of cinematography as well—leaning more toward longer shots than close-ups, and eschewing point-of-view shots. This appearance of objectivity serves to assure us as viewers that we are, in fact, seeing the true version of events.
The story begins and our love triangle is established when Mongnyong first sees Ch’unhyang as she sings at her mother’s
kisaenghouse. He sends Pangja to arrange an introduction, but Pangja has already fallen for Ch’unhyang. After cautiously courting her for some time, one night Pangja sneaks into her room and the two make love. Ch’unhyang knows, however, that her mother will never approve of a relationship with a servant. Instead of asking for the usual letter of fidelity that she might ask of a yangban, she has Pangja (who cannot read) sign a letter promising that he will help her marry Mongnyong in exchange for spending a night with her. Not long after this, Wŏlmae tells her to sleep with Mongnyong and secure a promise of fidelity from him.
Having achieved his purpose with Ch’unhyang, Mongnyong decides to return to Seoul to take the civil service examination. He sends Pangja to sneak into Ch’unhyang’s room and take back the letter he wrote promising fidelity to her. Ch’unhyang awakens to find Pangja in her room and gives him a letter—not Mongnyong’s letter, but Pangja’s letter. Mongnyong reads this and discovers Pangja’s relationship with Ch’unhyang, and as a result he decides to leave Pangja behind when he goes to Seoul. Pangja goes to work for Wŏlmae and enjoys a relatively open relationship with Ch’unhyang.
In Seoul, Mongnyong places first in the civil service examination and is given the position of royal inspector (although not a secret inspector, as in the original). He also meets Pyŏn Hakto, who is awarded the position of magistrate and told to choose his post. Mongnyong tells him of the beauty of Ch’unhyang and convinces him to go to Namwŏn. When Pyŏn Hakto takes up his post as magistrate of Namwŏn, he calls Ch’unhyang to his bedchambers, but she refuses and is thrown into prison. Mongnyong returns and bides his time in obscurity, while Pangja frantically tries to find someone to help Ch’unhyang. Finding no one to help him, Pangja at last intercedes himself, only to be beaten. Mongnyong does eventually appear—with a fan covering his face—and has Pyŏn Hakto arrested, but he then has Ch’unhyang beaten for refusing the magistrate. She pulls out Mongnyong’s letter, declares her fidelity to him, and then stabs herself.
Just when all seems to have ended in tragedy, we learn that Ch’unhyang and Mongnyong had conspired to set up Pyŏn Hakto for the fall. Pangja is jailed, Ch’unhyang recovers from her superficial wound, Mongnyong is promoted for having arrested the “evil” Pyŏn Hakto, and the two schemers prepare to leave for a new life. When Ch’unhyang visits Pangja one last time in jail, though, he confesses his love for her. This apparently causes her to have a change of heart. At the last moment, she tells Mongnyong that if they do not bring Pangja along she will tell everyone of his scheme; Mongnyong agrees. On their way up to Seoul, though, Mongnyong is apparently overcome by jealousy and pushes Ch’unhyang off a cliff and into a pool below. Pangja rescues her and flees, and the story comes to an end. Pangja, now known as “Mr. Yi,” takes the novelist to his home, where a mute and childlike Ch’unhyang waits for him—having suffered from brain damage from being in the water too long. The novelist promises to write Pangja’s story, but Pangja tells him that he wants to give Ch’unhyang the happy ending that eluded her... and he reframes the story as
The Tale of Ch’unhyangthat is known today.
Seen from a structural point of view, the differences between the original and the film can be boiled down to the film’s replacing Mongnyong with Pangja as Ch’unhyang’s love interest (Sin W.S. 2010, 396). This simple structural shift, though, upends the very foundations of the story, turns the protagonists into completely different characters, and drastically alters the themes of the work.
In the original, Pangja’s role is limited to that of intermediary between Mongnyong and Ch’unhyang. However, he also functions as the comic relief, constantly joking and clowning around. In the film, however, this role of comic relief is occupied by a newly-introduced character, an old servant known as Old Man Ma, who also serves as Pangja’s mentor, teaching him how to win over Ch’unhyang. This allows Pangja to become a much more serious and earnest character. While Pangja in the original story may tease Mongnyong and highlight his youthful foolishness at times, Pangja in the film represents a much stronger criticism of Mongnyong and the
yangbanas a whole.
For his part, Mongnyong goes from being an idealized hero in the original to a scheming, conniving, and heartless villain in the film. We never learn whether Mongnyong’s affection for Ch’unhyang was ever real. All we know is that he grows hostile toward Pangja and treats him poorly when he begins to suspect that Pangja has feelings for Ch’unhyang, and, when his suspicions are confirmed by the letter, whatever affection he may have had for Ch’unhyang becomes a desire to snatch her back from Pangja. His journey to Seoul can be seen as a strategic retreat, giving him time to form a plan and set it in motion. He is not concerned about leaving Ch’unhyang to Pangja—as he tells Pangja upon his return, he believes his servant is no match for him. In the end, he is proven right, emphasizing the fact that, while there may have been an inversion of the romantic relationship, there has been no inversion of the social structure.
Ch’unhyang remains the central love interest in the film, but, for as dramatic as Mongnyong’s fall from grace may have been, she falls even farther. In the original she is a paragon of virtue and beauty, held up as an ideal of fidelity. But there is more to her than at first meets the eye. There is no universal agreement between the various versions on Ch’unhyang’s status—in some texts, like
The Song of the Faithfulness of the Virtuous Ch’unhyang, which retains much of the character of the oral p’ansoriperformances, she denies being a kisaengeven though she is the daughter of a kisaeng, while in other texts, like The Old Tale of Namwŏn, which more closely resembles a novel, she at first admits that she is a kisaeng. However she may view herself, though, it is clear that those around her see her as nothing but a kisaeng. This is why her later insistence that she is not a kisaengcomes as such a shock. In the film, however, Ch’unhyang seeks to transcend her lowly social status not through virtue but through cold calculation.
Mongnyong and Pangja’s relationship is harmonious at first (when Old Man Ma asks Pangja how Mongnyong has been treating him, Pangja replies that he treats him well and even bought him new clothes), but as soon as Ch’unhyang enters the picture things go sour. When a thug threatens Mongnyong in front of Ch’unhyang, Pangja attacks and beats the thug, saving the day. Later, when Ch’unhyang joins Mongnyong for a picnic in the mountains, she slips on the rocks and twists her ankle. Mongnyong attempts to treat her ankle, but it becomes clear that he doesn’t know what he is doing and is only hurting Ch’unhyang. Unable to intervene, Pangja dives into a nearby pool to fetch one of Ch’unhyang’s shoes, which had fallen in. The composition of this shot is noteworthy: the camera looks down on the action from a distance and nearly directly above the pool, creating an almost two-dimensional, idealized image. Pangja then carries Ch’unhyang on his back along a flower-lined road in another idealized, romantic scene.8 In every interaction, Mongnyong is depicted as being incompetent yet arrogant, while Pangja emerges as the quiet, romantic hero. In return for constantly being shown up by his servant, Mongnyong treats Pangja with cruelty and contempt.
Pangja’s love for Ch’unhyang, though, is less than pure. He confesses to Old Man Ma that he is overcome by a desire to possess her, and he is also angry at Mongnyong for treating him poorly and wants to get revenge by stealing her away. Although his actions later in the film, as well as his jailhouse declaration of love, seem to show that he truly does care for her, this true affection is a late development. Under Old Man Ma’s tutelage, he learns the art of seduction, which he uses on Ch’unhyang until she finally sleeps with him when he sneaks into her room that one night. Even after consummating their relationship, though, he remains uneasy. His fears become reality when he visits Ch’unhyang’s house (that is, the
kisaenghouse) the next day to find Mongnyong already there with her. He is forced to sit in the next room and listen as Ch’unhyang rather vocally enjoys Mongnyong’s company.
Ch’unhyang later tells Pangja that her mother told her to sleep with Mongnyong, and that she also told her to be very vocal, as that would be sure to excite him. At this point Wŏlmae appears to be the schemer behind the scenes; we have already seen her discussing how to ensnare Mongnyong. As in the original work, she is concerned for her daughter and does not want her to become the plaything of a young
yangban. If, however, her daughter can win Mongnyong’s love and obtain a pledge of faithfulness from him, she will be able to transcend her station. Ch’unhyang, on the other hand, genuinely cares for Pangja and seems to be caught between love and a mother who wants to better her daughter’s lot in life. When she gives Pangja his own letter to return to Mongnyong, she chooses love over status.
At least, this is how it at first appears. However, even after spending all that time with Pangja in Mongnyong’s absence, her attitude changes once news reaches the town that Mongnyong has passed the civil service examination and been named royal inspector. After informing Pangja of the news, she says, “Oh, look at me. I forgot that I was in the middle of something at home. See you later!” And she leaves him there speechless. When Wŏlmae sees Ch’unhyang trying on new clothes, she asks if it is because of Mongnyong. “I thought you were happy with Pangja,” she says, and Ch’unhyang replies, “I am happy.” Exasperated, Wŏlmae asks her why she is doing this, and Ch’unhyang throws her own words back in her face: “Why the sudden change? You’re confusing me. Didn’t you say that I should sell myself for the highest price possible?” Wŏlmae sighs and says, “Well, yes, but you two look so good together.” Then a brief silence passes and she adds, “It seems such a shame.” As she says these words a flash of regret shows on Ch’unhyang’s face before disappearing behind a sly smile. The roles have now been reversed: Wŏlmae, perhaps looking back on her life and reflecting on lost opportunities, is the romantic, while Ch’unhyang is the practical, calculating
kisaeng. The duplicity evident in the dialogue here is mirrored—literally—in the cinematography as well. When we first see Ch’unhyang in this scene, she is standing in front of a long double mirror, so we see two images of her in addition to her back. Then she sits down and we see only her face as reflected in a smaller mirror. It isn’t until the very end of the scene that she turns to her mother and we see her actual face, not just a reflection of it.
Thus the swapping of the roles of Mongnyong and Pangja is not the only reversal that takes place. As discussed above, regardless of whether Ch’unhyang identifies as a
kisaengin the original work, the story represents a conflict between these two sides of her character. She begins as a kisaeng, or is at least acting like one, when she allows her mother to arrange her tryst with Mongnyong. After Mongnyong leaves and Magistrate Pyŏn, unsurprisingly assuming that she is a kisaeng, presses her to come to his bedchamber, she denies her kisaengside and rises above her status to become a “virtuous woman” (the official title granted her by the king at the end of the story). In Pangja-jŏn, however, Ch’unhyang seems at first to deny her kisaengside and choose love over status, but it gradually becomes clear that she has simply been taking the path of least resistance to her ultimate goal of upward mobility. It is not that she does not love Pangja, or that she is not happy with him—it is simply that these things are not nearly as important to her as improving her social status. It is not until the very end that she repents of this choice, and for this repentance she pays a tragic price.
7“Pangja,” rather than being a name, literally means “servant,” but the term has become synonymous with this character. 8These two scenes foreshadow and are mirrored by the scene of Pangja swimming toward an unconscious Ch’unhyang in that same pool and the scene of him racing along that same flowerlined path with her on his back.
The Tale of Chŏn Uch’iis, like the other premodern works discussed here, originally based on oral tradition and has been handed down in a number of different versions. Some of these versions show significant influence from the more popular The Tale of Hong Kiltong, but the film Chŏn Uch’iappears to be based on the 1914 version published by the Sinmun’gwan publishing company (Lee J.H. 2010, 248). The text on which this printed version is based goes back to before the twentieth century, although scholars do not agree on exactly how old it is, with some arguing that its political nature reveals it to be a product of the enlightenment period of the late nineteenth century, and others asserting that it might go back as far as the seventeenth century (Kim I.Y. 1996, 283). The following summary is of this version (Kim I.Y. 1996, 284–369). Chŏn Uch’iis a scholar who learns magic from a hermit with mystical powers and then lives in isolation. Upon seeing the miserable plight of the people and the apathy of the government officials, he decides to come to the people’s rescue. Using his powers, he disguises himself as an official of heaven, descends to earth, and orders the king to make a gold crossbeam for him. Uch’i takes this gold and uses it to succor the poor, then he returns and scolds the king and his vassals before disappearing.
The remainder of the novel consists of a series of episodes in which
Chŏn Uch’iaids those in need, punishes those who deserve it, and himself escapes retribution. He sees a government official in the market attempting to take a pig’s head from a commoner, and he utters an incantation that brings the pig back to life and causes it to attack the official. He rescues those in danger, such as a man in danger of being executed. He takes every possible opportunity to harass and punish the government officials, and when he finds himself branded a rebel and a traitor, he paints a picture and disappears inside of it. When a friend is lovesick, he kidnaps a chaste widow, but a shamanic deity reproaches him for this, so Uch’i finds another woman and brings her to his friend.
After this series of episodes, which do not necessarily have any logical connection to each other but seem to simply be a collection of Chŏn Uch’i’s exploits, Uch’i hears of Sŏ Hwadam, a great master of magic. He seeks out Hwadam and tests his skills against him. Hwadam sets a task before Uch’i, and Uch’i rashly promises to succeed or never leave the mountain where Hwadam lives. He fails and tries to escape, but Hwadam stops him. They test each others’ skill at transformation, and in the end Hwadam wins. He tells Uch’i that to use his skills for good is admirable, but the longer he uses his skills the greater the chance he will fall into wickedness. Hwadam offers to teach Uch’i the proper way, and Uch’i agrees and follows him into seclusion in the mountains.
Chŏn Uch’idraws on episodes from the original work, but it also introduces elements from other Korean legends to tell an entirely new story. It differs from both Karujigiand Pangja-jŏnin two ways: firstly, while many new characters are introduced and the original characters (that is, Chŏn Uch’i and Sŏ Hwadam) differ somewhat from their inspirations, there is no real reversal or inversion of roles; and, secondly, the film begins in the original work’s time period (the late Chosŏn period), but most of it is set in modern Korea.
The film opens with a prologue that introduces a magic flute, played by a monk named P’yohundaedŏk, that keeps a horde of monsters at bay.9 P’yohundaedŏk and the monsters are locked in a cave, where they must stay for 5,000 years, but the three immortals guarding the cave unseal the entrance a day early. P’yohundaedŏk drops the flute and is overcome by evil, and the monsters are released into the world. The film then jumps forward to 500 years before the present day, during the Chosŏn period. Chŏn Uch’i disguises himself as an official of heaven, descends to earth, and scolds and mocks the king before making his escape into a painting. He then captures a widow and brings her back to a nobleman who promises to reveal the location of a magical bronze sword, but the nobleman turns out to be a monster disguised as a human. Uch’i’s master, the wizard Chŏnggwan, sends the widow back home, but Uch’i has already taken a liking to her.
Sŏ Hwadam is introduced here as a powerful wizard who hunts the monsters and searches for the flute. When he learns that Chŏn Uch’i and his master have the flute, he and the three immortals (who have no reason not to trust Hwadam yet) enter the painting and ask for it. Uch’i’s master resists, and the flute is broken in half. The immortals decide that this is safer, and the two wizards each take half. Later, though, Hwadam is overcome by the evil of the monsters, becoming a monster himself, and seeks the other half of the flute for his own ends. He poisons Uch’i’s master and frames Uch’i for the crime. The three immortals imprison Uch’i in a painting as punishment, but he takes half of the flute with him, frustrating Hwadam’s plans.
Five hundred years in the future, in modern-day Seoul, two of the monsters reappear, and the immortals decide to temporarily release Uch’i from his prison and enlist his help in capturing them. In the process, Uch’i encounters a girl named Sŏ In’gyŏng, who exactly resembles the widow. Hwadam, still under the influence of the monsters’ evil, reemerges and seeks out Uch’i and the other half of the flute. He turns Uch’i’s allies, including In’gyŏng, against him, and lures him to a confrontation on top of a tall building. At a crucial moment, though, In’gyŏng realizes that she is, in fact, a reincarnation of P’yohundaedŏk, and she is so startled that she falls off the building. Uch’i flies down to save her, and in the final showdown of the film In’gyŏng stabs Hwadam before Uch’i ultimately defeats him. Hwadam is imprisoned by the immortals, and the world is saved.
This is only a cursory summary of the film; the actual plot is far more complicated, but the above summary should be enough to draw comparisons with the original work. In terms of the structure of the story, the most significant change is the introduction of the magic flute, which drives the plot of the film. In terms of the setting, the most obvious change is the fact that the film spans time from “the beginning” (of history, that is) to the Chosŏn period to modern Korea. Many new characters are introduced, such as P’yohundaedŏk, the three immortals, and Uch’i’s master, but the most important character is Ch’oraengi, a dog that Uch’i has caused to metamorphose into a human and who aids Uch’i in his adventures. In his human form he is very strong and a skilled grappler, not to mention a very amusing sidekick.
The two characters drawn from the original work have also changed in significant ways. There are hints of the original Sŏ Hwadam in the beginning of the film, particularly when he enters the painting in search of Chŏn Uch’i and the flute. Upon entering the painting with the three immortals, he encounters Uch’i, who greets him with a casual arrogance. Hwadam then begins to lecture Uch’i. “In following the Way, one’s basic character comes first, and then one can bring peace to the world,” he cautions. When Uch’i scoffs at his advice, he grows angry: “You rely on a few petty tricks and flit about calling yourself a wizard, but you bring chaos to the world!” He then demonstrates that his magic is far more powerful than Uch’i’s and defeats the younger wizard easily. At this point in the story, though, he is still the powerful and wise wizard we know from the original work; when he sits down with Uch’i’s master and asks for the flute, he cuts his own arm to show that he bleeds red and prove that he is not a monster (since monsters bleed green). The next time we see Hwadam, though, he bleeds green from the same cut and, in a final moment of clarity, realizes that he has somehow become infected with the evil of what he had once hunted. This transformation from ally and mentor to main antagonist is an extremely significant change.
Chŏn Uch’i’s character in the film also differs from his original inspiration. His first appearance closely follows the corresponding scene in the original work, with Uch’i disguised as an official from heaven descending into the royal palace on a cloud, attended by his subordinates. He asks the king if he sent 10,000 nyang in gold to a famine-stricken area in Hamgyŏng Province, as he had instructed him. When the king replies that he has, Uch’i says that the heavens will reward him seven-fold, seventy-fold, and seven hundred-fold. But then his mischievous nature gets the better of him, and the king realizes he has been deceived. He thunders at Uch’i, calling him a “blasted wizard,” and Uch’i displays the extent of his powers. “What is a wizard? A wizard rules the wind, causes rain to fall from a dry sky, folds the earth beneath his feet,10 wields a sharp blade like the wind and cleaves heaven and earth, knows how to handle the same blade like a flower, and helps those in need.” He then turns to the king and scolds him: “All fish rot from the head! The king and his ministers did not look after those people plagued by famine, so this wizard Chŏn Uch’i has come on behalf of the people.”
When he is released from the painting in modern-day Seoul, he comments on how much the world has changed. When one of the immortals informs him that there is no king, he at first does not believe him. He later sees a homeless man on the street and asks, “If there is no king, who feeds the people?” The immortal responds that the corporations (or “merchants,” as he phrases it so Uch’i will understand) are responsible for the welfare of the people. Incredulous, Uch’i replies, “Are you jesting with me? Those rootless traders will abandon their own parents and use false scales for their own profit, and they feed the people? It is no wonder that such a world is filled with trouble.” Yet for all his talk, we never actually see Uch’i help the common people. When the immortals point out girls walking around Seoul in short skirts as a sign of the corruption of the times, the first question out of Uch’i’s mouth is how to win the heart of a woman these days. He uses his ability to interact with paintings to take alcohol from advertisements and in general spends his free time (while he is not hunting monsters) playing tricks. When one of the immortals takes him into a night club in pursuit of a wounded monster, Uch’i asks him what sort of place it is. “It’s a place where people waste their lives,” the immortal replies matter-of-factly. Uch’i takes one look around and says, “This is just my style.” And he only hunts the monsters because the immortals promise they will free him from the shackles that still remain around his ankles—shackles they can (and do) use to summon him at will.
Another significant difference between the original Chŏn Uch’i and the Chŏn Uch’i we see in the film is how the latter performs his magic. In the original work, he acquires his magical skills by studying beneath a master. In the film, though, he never completes his studies beneath his master, and so his magic is lacking. He is indeed capable of ruling wind and water and performing all types of astounding feats, such as transforming himself, animating broomsticks so that they resemble human beings, and weaving other illusions to deceive the less clever, but to do all of these things he requires charms: small slips of paper with magical incantations written on them. In the beginning of the film he asks his master why he cannot perform magic without the charms, and his master replies that it is because he has not yet learned to clear his mind. When he first encounters the monsters in modern-day Seoul, Ch’oraengi (who has Uch’i’s charms) has not been freed from his own painting yet, so Uch’i is at the mercy of the monsters and is tossed about like any other mortal. All seems hopeless until Ch’oraengi appears, temporarily incapacitates the monsters by throwing manhole covers at them, and gives Uch’i his charms. It is only then that he is able to wield his magic. This reliance on charms comes into play toward the end of the film, when Hwadam deceives Ch’oraengi, promising to turn him into a real human being if only he will bring him Uch’i’s pouch of charms. Ch’oraengi does so, but he keeps a single charm for himself and gives this to Uch’i when all seems lost. He no doubt expected Uch’i to use it in the fight against Hwadam, but Uch’i instead uses it to fly down and rescue In’gyŏng (P’yohundaedŏk) when she falls off the building. But at the final showdown, when Hwadam is exposed to the three immortals for who he is, Uch’i finally masters the art of clearing his mind and is able to use his magic without the aid of charms.
One of the many subplots in the film deals with Uch’i’s search for two magical artifacts that, together, are said to allow one to become the greatest wizard in the land. The first is the bronze mirror, which Uch’i sees among the king’s treasure and takes for his own at the beginning of the film. The second is the bronze sword, which Uch’i does not find until he comes out of the painting in modern Korea. As his master points out when he hears of Uch’i’s search for the artifacts, though: “That fellow does not want to follow the Way, he only wants to make a name for himself.” And although the artifacts do play an important part in ensuring Uch’i’s ultimate victory (the sword allows him to break the shackles, which he later uses to ensnare Hwadam, while the mirror allows the bewitched In’gyŏng to see her true self), they do not make him the greatest wizard in all the land; in the first half of the final showdown with Hwadam, Hwadam still has the upper hand. No, Uch’i becomes the greatest wizard in the land by sacrificing himself to save In’gyŏng and finally clearing his mind so he can truly follow the Way.
One last point should be made regarding the structure of the film. As mentioned above,
Chŏn Uch’idiffers from the other two films in that a majority of the action takes place in modern Korea, but this leap forward five hundred years is not the only instance of temporal discontinuity. The film begins “in the beginning,” then leaps forward to the present day, then back to the Chosŏn period, and then finally back to the present day for the remainder of the film, with the exception of flashbacks to and dream sequences of “the beginning” and the Chosŏn period. In addition, both Uch’i and his master have visions of the future: in the Chosŏn portion of the film, Uch’i conjures up an illusion of a distinctly unKorean beach that turns out to be a beach somewhere in Southeast Asia, where the characters go at the end of the film, while Uch’i’s master foresees Hwadam’s final trick and leaves Uch’i a message of warning before he dies. Interestingly enough, Hwadam, who is portrayed as the most powerful wizard throughout most of the film, is given opportunities to see the future but fails to take advantage of them: a former shamaness gone mad prophesies twice to him, but he does not understand the prophecies until they have come to pass—that is, until it is too late to do anything about them. It is, in fact, this failure of Hwadam to see the future (combined with the foresight of Uch’i’s master) that leads to his downfall.
9The story of the flute is not originally associated with Chŏn Uch’i; it is drawn from the thirteenth century text, Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa). 10This refers to covering vast distances in the blink of an eye, as if the earth could be folded like a piece of cloth.
As with all films, the three films discussed above may be evaluated on their own merits, but comments made by their directors can shed light on some of the decisions made and help us better understand how a film came to be what it is. Shin Han-sol has been open about his inspiration for the film: the previous four films based on
The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe, all of them produced in the late 1980s and all of them works of erotic historical drama. “Those B films had a surprising creativity of their own,” Shin said in a 2008 interview. “I wanted to pay homage to the people who made those films and at the same time create an even more fantastic film.” (Kim P.J. 2008) Thus it should come as no surprise that Karujigifollows the example set by its 1980s predecessors in ignoring the second half of the original story and choosing instead to focus on the first and more erotic half.11 He also noted in the same interview that he wanted to capture some of the enthusiasm ( sinmyŏng) present in the art form of p’ansori: “I believe that the ritual for rain held by the women is very important in this film. That is where the enthusiasm of the group and their communal song burst forth.”
In a 2010 interview (Kim C.H. 2010), Kim Dae-woo said that his goal was to “overcome”
The Tale of Ch’unhyang, but he was ultimately unsuccessful and in the process came to understand the true beauty of the original work: “ The Tale of Ch’unhyangis like an old dish lying around the house; when you wipe it off you realize it is precious white porcelain.” In terms of the themes he wanted to deal with in his film, he cites jealousy as an important motivator: “I think that jealousy is the motivating force behind Korea. Koreans have a stronger desire to not fall behind others.” Although he uses the term “jealousy” here, and although the two male characters are at times indeed motivated by jealousy, it might be more accurate to say that the characters are driven by ambition or desire. Later in this same interview he spells this out more clearly: “In Pangja-jŏn, I wanted to say that the pursuit of personal happiness and the pursuit of desires are more important than the conflict between high and low.”
Choi Dong-hoon gave an interview in 2009 (Kim T.H., 2009) in which he talked about his desire to make a different type of film. He described the character of Chŏn Uch’i as “the type of person who does not do great deeds nor is swept up in a cause,” and is instead a type of “playboy.” Although Uch’i travels the novice’s road to becoming a true hero and does in fact save the world, he is not a typical hero or even a typical wizard. When asked about the film’s apparent disregard for spatial or temporal continuity, Choi replied, “That was my intention. He is, after all, a wizard.” Thus the character of the protagonist can be seen in the very nature of the film. And, perhaps not incidentally, this loose approach to continuity is an effective way of capturing some of the disjointed feel of the original work, which, although it does not leap back and forth through time, is episodic and thus does not follow a single, continuous timeline.
The above comments by the directors hint at the different approaches they took to their premodern source materials.
Karujigirepresents a complete inversion of the world of Pyŏn Kangsoe, with women as the dominant force in society and men in submission to them. Pangja-jŏnretains the basic social structure of the original but inverts the personalities of the main characters, turning an idealized love story into a more realistic tale of ambition. And Chŏn Uch’imaintains the basic personality and nature of the protagonist but upends his world by moving him in time and space from early sixteenth-century P’yŏngyang to early twentyfirst-century Seoul. Although all three films involved some shift from or inversion of the original works, the strategies used are markedly different and achieve results that are just as distinct.
The inversion of the social structure in
Karujigidrives the plot forward by giving Kangsoe something to strive against, and it is also an interesting change from the usual male-dominated social structure we expect to see in Chosŏn society. Perhaps more importantly, though, it allows the women of the village to assert their dominance over Kangsoe when he wakes a new man; a village full of men taking advantage of a single woman would be unacceptable, but the inversion of that situation is seen as humorous, especially given society’s ideas about the male preoccupation with sex. When we look deeper, though, we see that this inversion is perhaps not as effective as it was intended to be. Although the women do line up outside of Kangsoe’s house and ostensibly take advantage of him, once a woman has had sex with Kangsoe she is knocked down from her pedestal. The excessive ŭmenergy in the village has been tamed by Kangsoe’s massive yang, and the women follow Kangsoe around like fawning, giggling schoolgirls. There is no middle ground for them: they are either dominant or submissive, but never equal, and thus they make a poor substitute for Ongnyŏ.
Kangsoe himself makes a poor substitute for the traditional Kangsoe as well. As discussed above, the premodern Kangsoe represents the threat to and defiance of the norms of civilization by unbridled individuality. Although he dies and is eventually buried, showing civilization’s victory over the individual, Kangsoe remains defiant to the very end and refuses to recognize that victory. Kangsoe in the film, though, is a culture hero and champion of society against both nature and foreign powers. Although the film is apparently an attempt to provide an origin story for Kangsoe, it is difficult to identify any consistent themes. If anything, the only readily apparent theme would seem to be that strong women are an aberration and must be put back in their place. The very end of the film shows us a brief glimpse of the village in harmony, but we never get any sense that a real equality has been reached. It would seem that in attempting to create a homage to the erotic historical films of the 1980s, Shin lost sight of what made Pyŏn Kangsoe who he is. Simply giving an emasculated Kangsoe a larger phallus is not going to be enough if he does not have the heart and spirit to go with it.
As expressed in the director’s own words,
Pangja-jŏnseeks to remove the class struggle of The Tale of Ch’unhyangfrom the spotlight and replace it with a conflict of desires. Appropriately, each main character in the film seeks their own happiness above all else: Mongnyong desires to succeed in life by advancing through the ranks of government service, Pangja longs to possess Ch’unhyang, and Ch’unhyang wants both love and status, though she seems willing to sacrifice the former for the latter depending on the situation. Both Mongnyong and Pangja succeed in achieving their goals, although to some extent their victories are Pyrrhic. Mongnyong does attain a high-ranking position, but he loses Ch’unhyang to Pangja. There is no indication that he ever loved Ch’unhyang or thought of her as more than a prize, but he is clearly afflicted by jealousy of his servant. For his part, Pangja succeeds in possessing Ch’unhyang and exacting revenge on his master. But the Ch’unhyang he has finally gained is no more than a child trapped in a woman’s body, and he must spend the rest of his life fearing reprisal. Finally, Ch’unhyang might have succeeded in raising her social status, but at the very end decides she also wants love after all. She blackmails Mongnyong into bringing Pangja along by threatening to expose his scheme, and this pushes Mongnyong’s jealousy over the edge. She does ultimately regain Pangja’s love, yet at the cost of not only her status, but her mind as well.
While the original work is an idealized tale of love that crosses class boundaries, this modern retelling is a far more cynical—and perhaps more realistic—treatment. This is possible, of course, because of the distance between the source material and modern society. During the Chosŏn period,
p’ansoriwas unable to openly oppose the Confucian ideals of the ruling yangbansince many of the patrons of p’ansoriwere yangban. So these works paid homage to ideals such as fidelity; beneath the surface, however, they slyly mocked those in power. This is Pangja’s function in the p’ansoriversion, not only to serve as comic relief but also to make subtle jabs at the yangbanand their empty words. Pangja’s criticism of the yangbanin Pangja-jŏnis much more blatant and obvious to the viewer simply because it can be, but because the film maintains the feudal social structure, Pangja actually appears more impotent than he is in the original work. Ch’unhyang spells this out when Pangja comes to visit her in jail: “You have no power at all. You’re just going around asking others for help.” Although Pangja does eventually make a name for himself, he is never truly able to transcend his lot in life; he exposes the tyranny and social injustice of the yangban, but he is powerless to do anything about it. The film is true to its realistic depiction to the very end. Chŏn Uch’iis the only film discussed here that does not try to make its protagonist something that he is not in the original premodern material. The director’s comments indicate that he was primarily concerned with weaving an interesting and enjoyable tale, but the changes that are made to the protagonist do more than just drive the plot forward. The most obvious change to the character of Uch’i is his use of charms to perform magic. The different versions of The Tale of Chŏn Uch’idepict Uch’i gaining his powers in different ways. The Sinmun’gwan version, on which the film is based, simply says that he studied under a wise master and possessed marvelous skills. The Nason version, which is the version most heavily influenced by The Tale of Hong Kiltong, has Uch’i born as a clever child who travels the land studying magic, while the Ilsa version, the only surviving handwritten manuscript and presumably the oldest extant version, attributes Uch’i’s abilities to the spirit of a fox that he defeats. What these three versions have in common is that Uch’i has already mastered magic to some extent and does not require the use of charms. The charms are a convenient plot device in the film, but once they are gone, with his master dead and Hwadam turned evil, Uch’i must clear his mind and master the principles of magic by himself. While receiving great magical power from a wise teacher, a magical item, or as a reward for helping a powerful being is a common theme in premodern literature, Chŏn Uch’idepicts a more modern, individualist, and humanist hero. The fact that the film never has Uch’i directly helping those less fortunate, as he does in the original, reinforces this image.
The film also offers a criticism of modern Korean society. The three immortals’ lament that the people of today pursue only wealth and fortune and think only of entertaining themselves is one obvious example, but
Chŏn Uch’i’s scathing assessment of merchants (corporations) is another, perhaps more subtle example. The depiction of corporations as heartless entities only out to make a profit is nothing new, but it is interesting that, when Uch’i asks one of the immortals who takes care of the people, that immortal does not reply with the obvious answer: the government. After all, it is the democratically-elected government of Korea, not corporations, that replaced the king of Chosŏn. This brief exchange, then, is not solely a criticism of corporations, but also of a country that has become so commercialized that it places its faith not in its government but in its companies. Although this is just a passing moment in the film, it is an interesting counterpart to the political message of the original work.
The three films discussed here utilized different strategies in their adaptations of premodern literary works, and these strategies met with varying degrees of success. The inversion of the social structure in
Karujigiis interesting, but it is difficult to understand why the story had to be told through the character of Pyŏn Kangsoe. There is the expectation that an adaptation of a familiar story will, if not transcend the original, at least offer a refreshing new take on it. Karujigidoes neither, ignoring what makes Kangsoe who he is, and one can only wonder if this disconnect between the traditional Kangsoe and this modern Kangsoe led to the relatively disappointing ticket sales. Pangja-jŏnundermines the subtle humorous criticism of the yangbanin the original and thus ends up feeling more powerless and fatalistic. The film seems to be somewhat at odds with the director’s comments on it: though he sees jealousy or ambition as a powerful positive force in Korean society, it is a destructive force in the film, and though he hoped to champion pursuit of individual happiness, none of the characters end up truly happy. The director’s comments aside, though, it is a realistic portrayal of the consequences of pursuing one’s desires in a rigidly-structured society, and perhaps a timeless commentary on ambition. Chŏn Uch’ialone breaks free from the premodern setting, placing its protagonist in modern Korea. For as strange as Uch’i initially finds this era, he quickly adjusts to his new surroundings, showing that some things never change and linking premodern and modern Korea. The film is an excellent example of a reimagining of premodern literature, maintaining some of the themes of the original and applying them to modern Korea on the one hand, while introducing new themes through the juxtaposition of old and new on the other.
11See Hwang H.J. for a discussion of the five films that have been based on The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe.