CHUNHYANG —*** 1/2 — Hyo-jeong Lee, Seung-woo Cho, Jung-hun Lee, Hang-Yun Kim, Sung-nyu Kim, Ji-youn Choi, Sang-hyun Cho; in Korean, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, nudity, sex, vulgarity, brief profanity); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

One thing that can defy seemingly insurmountable cultural differences and almost-as-impossible-to-broach class differences is a good story told well.

And "Chunhyang" is definitely an example of both. Despite its obvious similarities to popular doomed romances (David and Bathsheba, Romeo and Juliet), this Korean import is a beautiful-looking, lush and romantic folktale that's downright irresistible.

Not too surprisingly, this tale's main themes (about fate, loyalty and the rights of the individual) are universal, and it's such an engrossing story that it may suck in even those audiences who normally avoid foreign-language fare.

In fact, the only thing that's unfortunate is that filmmaker Kwon-taek Im went so far in his depiction of sexual activity (though it would be considered tame and discreet by R-rated Western standards). This is a story and movie that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

The title character is Chunhyang Sung (Hyo-jeong Lee), the daughter of a courtesan. Despite her "lowly" class, she's proud, haughty — and surprisingly well-read, which is one of the things that Mongryong Lee (Seung-woo Cho) finds so appealing about her.

Mongryong is the son of a high-ranking official and is expected to follow his father into public service. He's also forbidden to marry the girl, much less see her. So he weds her in secret, with only a few loyal servants and her mother in attendance.

Unfortunately, fate intervenes. Mongryong's father is appointed to a higher position in Seoul and takes his family with him. As he leaves, Mongryong promises his new bride that he'll return for her when he has become a government official.

The years pass, but Chunhyang stays faithful to her husband, though it may cost the girl her life. A new governor (Jung-hun Lee) arrives in the province, determined to make her his new courtesan. And when she resists his advances, he sentences her to die.

Things look hopeless for the girl, who manages to send one last plea to Seoul, hoping for a reprieve — if not an outright rescue — from her true love.

The story might be familiar, but director Im has brought a fresh approach to the material. Among his more clever moves is the use of a p'ansori artist (Korean storyteller Sang-hyun Cho) to "narrate" the tale and provide smooth transitions between scenes.

He's also fortunate to have such a talented cast, in particular Hyo-jeong Lee, who enraptures the audience with her expressive eyes and natural emotings.

"Chunhyang" is rated R for violence (beatings and crowd control), fleeting male and female nudity, simulated sex (handled tastefully), some mildly vulgar double-entendres and brief mild profanity. Running time: 120 minutes.


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