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At the Movies

Clear choice


If you’ve been protecting your ears while sitting through “coming attractions” or been mostly bored by what gets to your local multiplex, seek out the new Korean romantic epic Chunhyang, and be prepared to swoon. Director Im Kwon Taek has made more than 90 films. Where they have been hiding his talent all this time, I can’t imagine.

He has taken a classic of 18th century feudal Korea, and told it in a lyrical presentational style, emphasizing the beauties of the landscape and centered on the pansori singing of Cho Sang Hyun, a musical performer famous in his country.

We see Cho in a modern theater, accompanied by a drummer, with the audience urging him on. It’s impossible to do justice to the emotional variety in Cho’s voice as he sings of young love overcoming the rigid class structure and established oppression of an earlier age.

The story begins in Namwon province, where Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), the governor’s son, takes a holiday from his studies so that his bungling comic servant can show him the natural wonders of the area. The subtitles tell us the young man is only 15, but he is already handsome and self-assured. As he proceeds on his stylized journey through a blossoming countryside, he sees the beautiful Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung) and tells the servant to bring her to him. She is indignant at being ordered about but sends back a subtle answer that reveals both her independence and literary education.

Although Mongryong shares the arrogance of the nobility and has been told that Chunhyang is the daughter of a courtesan, he has sense enough to interpret her reply as meaning that it is he who should approach her. He calls at the home of her mother at night and despite the latter’s reminders that an alliance with a son of the nobility is forbidden, Mongryon proceeds through delightfully formalized stages of courtship and overcomes Chunhyang’s resistance. She shyly insists that Mongryon declare the permanence of his love, and the young man executes the calligraphy for “fidelity” on the front of her silk robe.

Married, Mongryong remains at his mother-in-law’s house, and after a solemn undoing of many layers of clothing, there is a long, lush sequence of fervent lovemaking. Such explicit eroticism surely violates the canons of the movie’s 18th century source, but the director succeeds in making it enchanting rather than exploitative. The couple’s raptures are cut short, however, when Mongryong’s father is summoned to Seoul by the king to assume greater responsibilities, and the young husband is ordered to accompany him. Chunhyang is desperate to go with her husband but he promises to return after completing his studies.

Despite the obedience Mongryong owes to his father, a contemporary audience will be rightly indignant at his failure to communicate with her for three years. The emotional climax is reached after a despotic new governor arrives at Namwon, and demands that Chunhyang be brought before him along with the other local courtesans. She insists that just as he cannot give his loyalty to more than one king, she cannot accept more than one man.

Chunhyang is languishing in prison when Mongryong is appointed a royal emissary. He comes to Namwon disguised as a beggar, and listens to the complaints of the peasants. When he visits Chunhyang in jail, however, it seems unforgivable that he does not share the secret of his royal commission with his wife. Next day, however, he comes uninvited to the governor’s birthday party, and in a suspenseful scene, speaks openly of the corruption of the administration. When the governor tries to justify the punishment of Chunhyang as a response to sedition, Mongryong triumphantly responds, “She only wanted to be a human being.”

The production ends with a return to Cho singing on stage to an enraptured audience. By constantly reminding us that the movie is a fairy-tale, “Chunhyang” is rewarded by the delight with which we believe in it.

MGM and Universal have joined forces to produce a predictably inferior sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” with Sir Anthony Hopkins back in the title role as Hannibal and Julianne Moore replacing Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling. Based on a later novel by Thomas Harris, the movie opens 10 years after “Lambs.” Director Ridley Scott makes the material bloodier but less scary, and the duel between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice is diluted by excessive plotting.

The movie opens with Clarice leading an FBI team on a drug bust that is bungled. Her boss (Ray Liotta) wants her discredited, for unexplained bad reasons -- indeed, the FBI is presented so poisonously that one almost wants to join the agency as a protest. The news comes to the attention of Lecter, who is leading a polite, non-cannibalistic life in Florence.

Meanwhile we spend too much time at the magnificent estate of Mason Verger (played by an unbilled Gary Oldman), a frighteningly disfigured Hannibal victim who plays his role in a wheelchair. During an encounter that took place before the movie begins, Verger, under the influence of amyl nitrate, had been convinced by Lecter to cut off his face and feed it to the dogs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he tells Clarice. Verger is prepared to spend his fortune to wreak a horrible revenge on the doctor and believes Clarice can be used as bait.

Though all this seems so incredibly overheated as to reach the level of tasteless humor, in Florence there are wonderfully presented fountains and street scenes, plus the one interesting character, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), a police officer who hopes to collect the reward for capturing Lecter alive. Pazzi takes his wife to the opera, where they bump into Lecter, but Pazzi doesn’t pay enough attention when the latter connects his name with a remote ancestor who died by hanging. He fails to take necessary precautions and reenacts in spectacular fashion the fate of the medieval Pazzi.

Hopkins won an Academy Award for “The Silence of the Lambs.” He doesn’t make much of an effort this time. Unfailingly polite, precise in diction, he seems to feel superior to everything around him -- including his material. As Clarice says, Lecter “only eats the rude.” Lecter remains interested in her psychology, and she herself confesses “I can’t get him out of my mind,” but the relationship between them is never credible.

I am happy to comply with the producers’ request not to reveal the ending, which does include some shockingly sinister images, as well as others gross enough to satisfy the most jaded adolescent.

The whole movie is washed in endless choral music, a strangely inappropriate aesthetic choice. None of this will prevent the much-hyped “Hannibal” from being a hit. The most worrisome aspect is not the exploitation of the proven popularity of horror movies -- director Ridley Scott first made his name with “Alien” -- but that seeing “Hannibal” tends to make us not take real evil seriously. As if the effects of original sin are only to be found in over-the-top monsters!

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001