March 27th, 2012
Another Korean movie blows my mind. It seems like the global reach of Korean pop culture is wide enough now that you get to see a lot of movies that actually suck. As opposed to, say Iranian film, where only the most excellent work reaches us and all the dreck stays back home, or you have to purposefully look for it in a local store or online. So every now and then I’ll see a Korean film that will remind me of the caliber of their writers and how many of their best work tackles social hierarchy or long established assumptions about class or filial piety.
Enter The Servant (방자전), a very insidious take on the traditional pansori Chunhyang. Chunhyang is an epic story about a kisaeng named Seong Chunhyang who refuses to live up to the impositions of society and refuses to join her mother’s profession. Instead she makes a love-pact with a local yangban (Yi Mongryeong) before he goes off to Seoul to take the state examinations. Mong was infatuated by Chunhyang when he first saw her playing in a swing during a local festival and sent Bangja, his rogue uneducated servant, to arrange a meeting between the two. After seducing the young virgin, Mong has to apply himself and go take his examinations in the capital. Even worse, his father gets promoted in the imperial bureaucracy and Mong is gone for a number of years and comes back as a Royal Inspector (a cross between an ombudsman and a state attorney). Mong is assigned to his old province of Namwon where the new philandering governor has his eye set on Chunhyang. She refuses to serve the governor citing her promise to Mong. The governor scuffs at the idea of a “married kisaeng” and tortures her to near death in what is one of the most moving arrangements of form, rhythm and content I’ve ever heard; the stuff of great operas. Mong comes at the last minute, arrests him for corruption and, without revealing who he is, questions Chunhyang about her dereliction of class duty (i.e. Why didn’t she entertain the Governor, who was her upperclassman). Chunhyang reveals her reasons before collapsing and Mong asks for forgiveness and marries her. The End. No spoiler there since this is a well known story.
In 2000 Im Kwon-taek did a wonderful, heart wrenching, tasteful and moving portrayal of the story which ended in a real performance of one of the final songs in which every strike of the cane is counted and for each new number a rhyme is offered in rebuttal to the evil Governor’s lechery. Im treated the story at face value but added a lot of relevance by pivoting the story on its emotional qualities. You spend the last 10 minutes crying like a Mary and you get to understand why this pansori keeps transcending time.
Well, Kim Dae-woo did none of that with his interpretation of Chunhyang. What he did was insolent, disrespectful, capricious and just plain genius! The first thing Kim did was to turn Bangja the servant into Chunhyang’s paramour. Ouch! Not only is his Bangja brave, thoughtful and reserved (the exact opposite of the stereotype of the uncultured servant). Mong is cowardly, calculating, and not dashing by any stretch of the imagination. Kim also added a wise and horny old man who serves as Bangja’s consigliere in matters of love. With his help, Bangja deflowers a less than pious Chunhyang before his Mong (his employer) gets to sleep with her. Chunhyang still goes on to sleep with Mong, and extracts a promise of love from him, but this time as a way of climbing the social ladder. Double ouch! Mong is not as hot as he thinks himself to be, and falters as a lover. Unlike in Im’s movie he decides to apply himself to his studies rather than being prodded into it by his parents. He also has no qualms about leaving Chunhyang behind to fend for herself while he goes to Seoul. During this absence Bangja and Chunhyang get it on, a lot… They fall deeply in love with each other; deep-rooted love. The kind that can deal with, and forgive, practical compromises. They achieve the familiarity that comes with sharing a bed. The one thing that does stick to the script is Mong acing his examinations, but instead of a formal condecoration, he is greeted by jaded royal officials (eunuchs) who totally fumble his assignment and get easily distracted by the frivolousness of court life. In short, Mong has to buy his title after all that study and effort. His hard work was worth squat. On his way back to Namwon Mong meets the future governor (a class mate) and talks up the famous “Chunhyang.” he even tells him “Dude, you would totally love hitting that.” The Governor rather than being a scheming and evil abuser of power, is socially awkward, creepy and has probably never seen a female pubic hair in his life. He arrives in Namwon ahead of Mong. Summons Chunhyang to court and immediately tries to force himself on her, in a creepy, socially awkward sort of way. (If you know the story you can’t help but laugh with joy and all the role bending that Kim has done so far, and this is where it gets good, so if you don’t want to know how this ends skip to the next paragraph). When the governor tortures and beats Chunhyang she proclaims her love for someone else, but this time out of convenience. She is plain creeped out by this guy and wants out. Bangja tries to take on the role of her beloved, but she coldly denies having anything to do with him, because she has previously conspired with Mong to put on a show of loyalty for him so he can have some drama in his life that will make him look like a noble hero. All the while the servant is the only worthy of being called “noble.” Despite knowing about their plan, Bangja tries to stop the beating of Chunhyang and pays for it with a beating worse than hers. As in the original story, Mong saves the day, tests Chunhyang’s loyalty by concealing his person (except that now she knows it’s really him) and arrests the corrupt governor, who due to his shyness had to be practically forced into partaking in all the chicanery going on at palace. The people declare Chunhyang a hero and Mong relishes on all the credit he gains with his countrymen. His plan worked. On a whim he then throws Chunhyang off of a cliff and brain damages her for life. Bangja, far from a noble idiot by now, rescues her and elopes with his now mentally incapacitated lover. He meets a writer who wants to commit his story to writing, but Banja, now a fugitive, asks him to make the story more inspiring and apt for audiences. He instructs him to write the story as we know it today, and proceeds to take his humble place in society. As a background figure to the rollicking of the richer classes.
This is so twisted and profound that it seems like Kim’s j’acuse moment at the social stratification of Korean society. Not only are there no innocents in this story–which was already a strong denunciation of social status–the one character who has all the qualities of a “noble” person, Banja, consciously decides to recede into the background of society and play the fool, but not without delivering to the writer the most memorable stanzas of the opera (Iri onora opko nolcha … sarang, sarang, sarang nae sarang iya..!). It’s as if the writer is trying to say that people are so foolish, hypocritical and used to their ways that even a noble character has to play dumb just to keep them feeling secure in their assumptions.
I will just close by saying that the origin of the word villain comes from “village” while nobility took its name from the word used for the qualities which they wished to imbue themselves with, but could never dream of having because in order to achieve power (and most importantly KEEP it) they had to act in the exact opposite way. they had to be scheming, lecherous and practical. This is not too far from our modern day politics where “hope” has to take a back seat in order for the party to continue, and for the masses to have their easily digestible stereotypes.