dir. Im Kwon Taek
Opens Fri Feb 2 at the Egyptian.

In the movie Chunhyang, a noble-man, secretly married across class lines, is separated from his wife, Chunhyang. Her virtue assailed, she resists her seducer, even under threat of death. Will the noble return in time? The pleasure of such a tale is in the telling, and this movie tells it wonderfully.

We begin on a darkened stage, with a narrator and a drummer. The narrator chants; he growls; he promenades--imagine Tom Waits performing Portuguese fado. The drummer strikes the drum. At first there are no subtitles, only the music of the story. The narrator is magnetic, humorous, larger than life. He shakes open his fan, the subtitles begin, and we go to the world he's describing. It's a transition we've seen a thousand times. Peter Falk begins to read The Princess Bride, and suddenly the fields open up around us.

But instead of fading the narrator, Chunhyang keeps him on tap. Sometimes he provides conventional voice-over. Sometimes we switch from the tale back to the stage. But the really magical interactions of telling and tale take forms that I've never seen on film before. Sometimes the narrator recites Chunhyang's lines as she speaks them; we hear the two voices superimposed. Or in another kind of doubling, a character moves, rhythmically, and the narration describes his movement using that same rhythm--I laughed out loud from pure pleasure. Or yet again, a character suddenly takes up the song in the style of the narration.

Chunhyang cost $2 million to make, and I'm here to tell you $2 million goes a long way in South Korea. This film's got production values up the wazoo--a visual Topsy-Turvy meets Kundun. Among many fine performances, let me single out the villain. The usual route in playing villainy is to do Charles Laughton or F. Murray Abraham, all rolled Rs and twitching eyebrows. Lee Jung Hun, who plays the evil governor, takes the route less traveled, the evil of calm but absolute entitlement: I have the power to do evil, therefore I shall do evil. Delicious.