If Japanese director Matsujiro Hayakawa (早川孤舟) had been the first to make the classical story of Chunhyang into a movie in 1923 during the silent movie era, Korean director Lee Myeong-u, “Chunhyangjeon” (1935), was the first to make a film with sound in Korea.
“Chunhyangjeon” (1955), directed by Lee Gyu-hwan, triggered the film production boom in Korea after the Korean War. Meanwhile, director Hong Seong-gi’s “Chunhyangjeon” and Shin Sang-ok’s “Chunhyangjeon” (1961) were the first color cinemascope films to be made in Korea. The first 70mm film in Korea in the 1970s was Chunhyangjeon” (1971), directed by Lee Seong-gu.
All Chunhyangjeon movies were loved by moviegoers and gave birth to new stars. The story had been forgotten for some time during a sluggish period for the film industry, but was once again revived by Im Kwon-taek in 2000 under the title “Chunhyang,” which became the first Korean movie to compete in the Cannes International Film Festival.
In the 1923 “Chunhyangjeon,” the popular Byeonsa (silent film narrator) Kim Jo-seong and Gisaeng from Kaesong named Han Myeong-ok starred as Lee Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang. It was introduced as the first complete film to be produced in Joseon during the Japanese Imperial Period. (Previously, short films had been screened during plays. This form of drama was called Kino drama.)
The location was in Namwon, Korea, just as the original story. The cast was Korean, too. However, important work such as producing, directing, script writing, and filming were done by Japanese staff.
The exact author of Chunhyangjeon is unknown. It is assumed that the story was passed down orally, was sung as “pansori” during the later years of King Sukjong’s reign or the early years of King Yeongjo, and finally took root as a novel. There are more than 120 different versions of the novel of which the titles and plots slightly differ from one another. In the modern age, the novel was remade into a drama or film and settled down as one of the top classical books of Korea.
Chun-hyang is the daughter of a gisaeng, and Mong-ryong, the son of a nobleman. The love story which overcomes hierarchical barriers gave a vicarious thrill to the lower classes of the Joseon period, which had been a strictly hierarchical society. The villain is Byeon Hak-do, the new town official of Namwon who tries to force Chun-hyang to become his mistress and conducts all kinds of brutal misdeeds, and his character is a way of criticizing the corrupt society of the time. Mong-ryong, who comes back from Hanyang as a secret royal inspector, represents the people’s desire for a just ruler and administrator.
In 1935, Joseon’s first talkie “Chunhyangjeon“ had been produced. The first talkie in the U.S. had been “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. Since then and throughout the 1930s, during the sound film period, many theaters in Korea competed to screen foreign sound films. However, sound films had not yet been produced in Korea at that time.
Accordingly, the release of “Chunhyangjeon” was a wish come true for many Korean movie lovers. The film is more meaningful as the sound technologies were all domestically developed.
Lee Phil-woo returned from Japan after studying film and became the first Korean cameraman working on “Janghwa Hongryeonjeon (The Story of Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon)” (Kim Yeong-hwan) in 1923. In 1935, he was in charge of sound recording for “Chunhyangjeon” to become Korea’s first sound recording engineer as well.
Since 1931, he worked with Takeo Tsuchihashi on sound technologies and developed the sound system. The new sound technology was first applied in Japan’s first feature-length sound film “Madamu to Nyobo (The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine)” (1931) produced by the Japanese film company Shochiku. It was applied in Korean films only 4 years later in 1935 starting with “Chunhyangjeon” as the foundation for producing sound films in Korea had been weaker than in Japan. Though the lines in the sound film “Chunhyangjeon” were not clearly conveyed to viewers, the film drew great attention for its realistic sounds of laundry being done and doors opening and closing.
Though the first Korean sound film “Chunhyangjeon” had been produced and screened in 1935, the dream of Korean filmmakers still remained unfulfilled. This was because the film had been criticized for its technical errors and the cast’s lack of acting skills.
Though Lee Byung-il’s “Spring of Korean Peninsula” of 1941 is categorized as a pro-Japanese propaganda film, it actually depicts Korean filmmakers shooting the film “Chunhyangjeon.” Within the movie, “Chunhyangjeon” appears as a representative Korean film symbolizing the hope and passion of Korean filmmakers.
Lee Gyu-hwan wrote the script during the war and released his film “Chunhyangjeon” in January 1955, drawing 180,000 viewers in Seoul. (The population of Seoul at the time was 720,000) and set a new box office record.
“If we only make films good enough to see, Korean films will not be despised by the Korean people.” (From an article in the December 22, 1955 publication of “Hankook Ilbo.”) This statement had raised expectations and hope.
After the great success of “Chunhyangjeon,” many films were produced in Korea including a large number of historical films. “Chunhyangjeon” truly functioned as a foundation for the revival of the Korean film industry. But sadly, the film has been lost.
In 1961, two “Chunhyangjeon” remake films were released. One was directed by Hong Seong-ki and starred Kim Ji-mee as Chun-hyang, and the other was directed by Shin Sang-ok and starred Choi Eun-hee.
The two films are both based on the same classical love story, were made and released in the same year, and are also the first color cinemascope films to be made in Korea. In addition, the director and leading actress in both films were married to each other respectively.
However, “Seong Chun-hyang” had been more popular among viewers. Shin Sang-ok’s work was praised for having more glamorous and three-dimensional colors compared to Hong Seong-ki’s film. In Seoul alone, the film drew 390,000 viewers to theaters in 74 days, setting a new box office record. The film was also distributed in Japan as well.
Shin Sang-ok’s “Seong Chun-hyang” was called “Shin Chun-hyang” and Hong Seong-ki’s “Chunhyangjeon” was called “Hong Chun-hyang,” drawing much attention at the time. The rivalry between the top two film directors developed into disputes within the Korea Film Producers’ Association. At the time, in order to make a film, the production had to be reported to the culture and education ministry through the association. Members of the association had a split division when dealing with the film production by the two rival directors.
Actresses Kim Ji-mee and Choi Eun-hee, who both played Chun-hyang, were aged 22 and 36 respectively at the time of filming. Since Chun-hyang was 16 years old in the story, it might have been more apt for the younger actress to play the role. Both actresses were top stars of the time, but the race ended in a deep sweep for “Seong Chun-hyang.”
Shin Sang-ok’s “Seong Chun-hyang” was made even more remarkable thanks to the good acting skills of its supporting roles. Heo Chang-kang, who played the role of Bang-ja, was praised as “a man born to play Bang-ja.” Heo was later cast to play the same role again in “Chun-hyang” produced by Kim Soo-yong in 1968.
The cameo appearances of the top comedians of the time, Koo Bong-seo and Kim Hee-kap, as policemen were another pleasant surprise for viewers.
Playing the leading roles in “Chunhyangjeon” has special meaning to actors and actresses as well. This is because the roles are given only to the top stars of the time.
In the 1971 “Chunhyangjeon” directed by Lee Seong-gu, Chun-hyang was played by Mun Hee, one of the top 3 actresses of the 1960s, and the role of Mong-ryong was given to the top male star, Shin Seong-il.
The 1971 “Chunhyangjeon” is also known as the first 70mm film produced in Korea.
The attempt to make a 70mm film based on Chun-hyang’s love story was made earlier in 1968 by Kim Soo-yong in “Chunhyang.” But eventually, the movie that had been released in February of that year was a 35mm film.
The first Korean 70mm film “Chunhyangjeon” released in 1971 was advertised in posters and newspaper ads as a “large-sized 70mm film” and having “stereophonic sound.”
“Chunhyang” was revealed to the public in 2000 as Im Kwon-taek’s 97th film. The film attempted to combine a full performance of the pansori version of “Chunhyangjeon” with a musical. Based on the pansori “Chunyangjeon” filmed in 1995 performed by Jo Sang-hyeon, a renown pansori singer, Director Im used his original 1976 recording (created when he was 37 years old) as the film’s music and narration. It was the first Korean film to reach the competitive rounds at the Cannes Film Festival (53rd).
“Chunhyang” created a great sensation by casting actors who were around Chunhyang’s age (16 years). The director of “Chunhyang,” Im Kwon-taek, placed great importance in the sweet puppy love experienced among youth of that age.
“When I was filming ‘Seopyeonje,’ I knew I’d make ‘Chunhyang’ one day. After ‘The Tae Baek Mountains’ and ‘Festival,’ I wanted to make a film that would really touch people’s hearts. I searched everywhere for ideas relating to my generation and the stories of our lives. However, the story of ‘Chunhyangjeon’ stole my heart.
- From an interview, “Im Kwon-taek talks about Im Kwon-taek” (Hyeonsil Munhwa, 2003)
“The last scene of 'Chunhyang’ features the appearance of the magistrate. The scene displays the ultimate spectacular work that Mr. Im has to offer. Pansori had always been secondary in Korean films up until that point. In Im Kwon-taek‘s film, viewers get to experience pansori recreated and the process of pansori being incorporated into the scene.”
- From an editorial by critic Jung Sung-il, “Im Kwon-taek talks about Im Kwon-taek” (Hyeonsil Munhwa, 2003)
Films that brought “Chunhyangjeon” to life created a great sensation and broke records every time they had been released. Over 20 versions of “Chunhyangjeon” have been made into film. “Bangjajeon (The Servant)” (2010, Kim Dae-woo) is a slight variation from the original that was created in more recent years. There may yet be another version of “Chunhyangjeon” that moviegoers will get to enjoy. Perhaps this is another way of saying that “Chunhyangjeon” is the most familiar love story among Koreans that also provides endless possibilities for artistic creators.
Curator — Lee Ji-youn, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications