Two great songs from the DPRK's most romantic film for the Dragon Boat Festival.
This blog post was originally published for Dano Festival in 2017.
Today is the traditional Korean Dano holiday (단오명절), which falls each year on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar. The holiday marks the transition from spring to summer, at which point rice transplanting, a laborious task, is finished. Thus, Dano was a well-earned break for the common people and folk festivals were held: masked dancing, folk games, wrestling, swinging, drumming, song and dance. To this day people eat wormwood rice cakes and lettuce in order to feel cool and refreshed. In China the festival is known as the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) and has its own set of customs and festivities.
The events in the The Tale of Chun Hyang (춘향전) begin around the Dano festival. The Tale of Chun Hyang is one of the most famous and popular Korean stories and has been passed down in song and written form since at least the 17th century. It takes place in the town of Namwon (남원), today in South Korea’s North Cholla province, and tells the story the romance between the Chun Hyang (춘향), a virtuous and chaste beauty of humble background, and aristocrat Ri Myong Ryong (리명룡), a bookish and righteous scholar-magistrate of the kind found in medieval Korea.
The world of the two lovers comes under threat when Ri is called away to the capital Seoul and a ravenous local official tries to make Chun Hyang his concubine. Chun Hyang, ever faithful to her Myong Ryong, resists these advances and is thrown into prison as punishment, enduring beatings and humiliation. Her beloved finally returns as a government censor to punish the corrupt official.
The introduction to a DPRK published English-version of Tale of Chun Hyang (1991, Foreign Languages Publishing House) states: “The tale criticizes the social discrimination that existed in feudal times and upholds the freedom for people to love and marry despite differences in property and social status.” The story can also be viewed as a critique against corruptions and example of behavior for upright men and women. At its core it is a beautiful love story.
In the modern era, both North and South Korea have made multiple film adaptations of the story. Wikipedia says there are at least twelve.
Love, Love, My Love (사랑 사랑 내 사랑, 1985) is the North Korean musical film adaptation of the tale and opens with a scene of the Dano festivities at Kwanghan Pavilion (광한루) in Namwon attended by a mass of commoners. A quick cut takes us to the relative quiet of aristocratic household, where scholar Ri, book in hand, emerges from his study. Obviously drawn by the festive atmosphere, he is torn between learning and what the fine day might bring outside. His loyal valet, Pang Ja (방자), ascending a tree in the yard, breaks out into song, telling of the world outside the gates. They then set off, singing of the gentle spring breeze, the festive atmosphere, the beauty of the scenery, and beauty of the women.
Everything I can see in front of my eyes is fresh and new! Today, you, Pang Ja, and me, will have a try at wrestling.
Our gentle hero, obviously doesn’t get out much and will he be glad he chose this Dano festival to attend!
Meanwhile, the humble Chun Hyang, pays respect to her deceased father at a small monument with her maid, Hyang Dan (향단). The passing gaggle of Myong Ryong and Pang Ja, no longer in song but nonetheless boisterous, scares the women. The women flee and Chun Hyang loses a shoe, setting the stage for their first brief meeting, where Ri notices the lost shoe and returns it to its owner, like to a kind of Korean Cinderella. Embarrassed (she is so modest!), Chun Hyang flees before a formal introduction can be properly made.
Later that day Myong Ryong spies from atop Kwanghan Pavilion the very same shy woman swinging, a traditional Korean activity for women, and Pang Ja sings her praises. Twice bitten, the man is now smitten and his faithful Pang Ja, with the help of Hyang Dan (there is a secondary love story here between the two servants), arrange a meeting with Chun Hyang and her mother, the traditional start of any true love story.
The next great song occurs before Ri goes up to Seoul, in Korea one always ‘goes up’ to the capital, and the lovers must part. Myong Ryong is studying as usual, while Chun Hyang sews in the background, but now deep in love and faced with separation, he cannot concentrate, and proposes the two pitch riddles to each other. He criticizes her choice as being too country-like (a common dis in both Koreas) and to avoid a fight, he proposes a dance. What follows is one of the most romantic (and abstract) scenes in North Korean film cinema.
Love, love, my love, thou are like a flower, prettier than a flower, oh my love
The Dano festival, that spring day, like in I dream, I met you, my love…
Love, love, my love, Shall I catch this departing spring? Without you, I cannot live, oh my love Should a thousand years pass, you are mine Should ten-thousand years pass, you’ll be mine...
And with that, we wish you a happy Dano festival and all the best in your own romance. May it be as eternal as Chun Hyang and Myong Ryong and without the interference from the petty officialdom of feudal society.
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