When director Im Kwon-Taek is referred to as the Akira Kurosawa of Korea, the comparison often has less to do with the style or the content of his films than with his nearly imperial status in his native land. One of his pictures, Sopyonje, has eclipsed everything else in the vicinity, becoming in 1993 at once the biggest commercial hit in the history of Korean cinema and its all-time top award winner. Although never a commercial powerhouse away from home, the 64-year-old filmmaker, whose Chunhyang (2000) opens in Los Angeles on Friday, was the first Korean auteur to win serious critical attention abroad. As with Kurosawa when Rashomon exploded at Cannes in 1950, Im won international festival acclaim in 1986 with The Surrogate Woman, and put an entire national cinema on the map.
If you had assessed Im’s career during its first decade, however, starting in the mid-1960s, none of this could have been predicted. At that point he was, to put it bluntly, a B-movie hack, cranking out quickies such as The Two Revengeful Hunchbacks (1971) and Don‘t Torture Me Anymore (1971). ”Whenever I think about the filmmaking I was doing then, I feel really guilty,“ Im admits, speaking through a translator during a recent visit to Los Angeles. ”Sometimes I wish that all of those films would disappear.“
It is perhaps understandable that he adopted a mercenary attitude toward cinema at first, given the hardships that dogged his early years. In his teens, during the Korean War, his father was a communist partisan. After the war, when South Koreans from leftist families were locked out of the job market, Im became ”a juvenile vagabond.“ He started a business salvaging discarded American Army boots, until a more attractive prospect came along: ”One of my friends was working for a film company, and he helped me get my first job as an assistant, in exchange for room and board.“
Im was 20 when he entered filmmaking, and at 25 he became the youngest director in South Korea with Farewell to the Duman River (1962), a patriotic WWII drama. He began working nonstop (”like an insect,“ he once said), cranking out more than 50 movies over the next 10 years. ”Every kind — comedies, historical dramas, action films. I thought that I could compete with Hollywood and at least improve the technical standards of Korean cinema. My so-called ’turning point‘ began when I realized this was impossible. We just didn’t have the resources. So I started to think about making films that only Koreans could make. I had lived a very struggle-ridden life, which is also the history of Korea itself. So I thought I really needed to film my own personal or national stories.“
Because he was typecast as a schlockmeister, Im had to self-finance his first great post–Turning Point film, a gamble that nearly proved disastrous when Genealogy (1978) failed at the box office. But in this mournful historical drama Im found the theme of many of his recent films. Genealogy centers upon an edict of the Japanese occupational authorities in the 1920s ordering all Koreans to take Japanese names and expunge their family histories; Im has since made it his mission to celebrate aspects of Korean identity threatened with extinction. He has made two films about the shamanistic folk religion Dong Hak, Daughter of the Flames (1983) and Fly High Run Far (1992), and two about pansori, a monologue storytelling form in which epic poetry is set to music.
The travails of the last wandering pansori minstrels still practicing their craft in the 1950s was the subject of Sopyonje (1993), whose huge success sparked a nationwide revival of this antique form of music drama. One of those who found new fame as a result was the aging pansori master Cho Sang-Hyun, who is seen performing for a chic audience of Seoul theatergoers in Chunhyang. The concert footage serves as a framing device for the main story, a lush adaptation of an 18th-century pansori libretto about a young woman who suffers persecution and even imprisonment for love. ”Pansori expresses the sadness that has been repressed for a long time by Koreans,“ says Im, ”as we‘ve survived many hardships.“
Im’s is a conservative aesthetic — stately, elegant, meticulously controlled. In other respects, he resists being pigeonholed: When he dramatized his father‘s experiences in the war epic Taebak Mountains (1994), his evenhanded depictions of left- and right-wing militiamen drew sharp complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. Culturally, Im isn’t a conservative; he‘s a conservationist. All over Asia, in the name of modernization, the artifacts of the past are being systematically bulldozed into oblivion. It is an uphill struggle, Im says, to persuade people that the old ways have value. ”Koreans tend to be eager to follow Western culture. They are convinced that the modern is better — and modern is defined by the West. They easily forget our past, our cultural tradition. Korea is a small nation. So if you think of it as a flower, it is a very small flower. But the beauty of this small flower should be preserved and appreciated, because it might not be alive much longer.“