Korean filmmakers have always sought inspiration in Korea’s long literary tradition. This article compares three recent films—Shin Han-sol’s
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 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
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 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
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
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
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,
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.
The Kangsoe that we meet in
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
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
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
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 story is commonly thought of as Korea’s version of
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,
The story begins and our love triangle is established when Mongnyong first sees Ch’unhyang as she sings at her mother’s
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 remainder of the novel consists of a series of episodes in which
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.
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,
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
In a 2010 interview (Kim C.H. 2010), Kim Dae-woo said that his goal was to “overcome”
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.
The inversion of the social structure in
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,
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,
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
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
11See Hwang H.J. for a discussion of the five films that have been based on The Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe.