The Tale Of Chun Hyang Movie Review: North Korea Unfiltered

Inquiring into original sources of history or current events, can eliminates the bias of secondary journalistic heresay. And movies made by and for their own countries also have the potential to open up, not just cultural understanding, but equally significant, a path for viewers to observe what’s going on there through direct observation, while making up their own minds.

Which is why foreign movie festivals like Films From The North, currently unspooling at NYC’s Korea Society, are so important, and much more than simply entertainment. And it’s not just about viewer experiences like the cultural discovery of flower dew as an ancient refreshment of choice back then.


Part Disney, part Karl Marx, and even part Internal Affairs, The Tale Of Chun Hyang blends romance, political intrigue and class warfare in what might be characterized as a post-revolutionary blockbuster. This far from subtle yet enchanting 1980 North Korean crowd pleaser steeped in poetic cinematography, refashions a popular traditional Korean folk tale Chunhyangjŏn, to switch emphasis from its original Confucian meditative internalized sensibility, to class conscious exploitation, resentment and payback.

In the film, Chun Hyang (the name is translated as ‘spring fragrance’) is the daughter of a kisaeng, or showgirl of humble birth, deserted by her nobleman lover. And Chun Hyang is likewise charmed and abandoned by a persistent artistocratic youth who departs for Seoul after marrying her, to pursue his college studies. Though they are mutually smitten and even write poems together, social forces forbidding romantic (but not carnal) love across class lines conspire to drive them apart.

When a notoriously cruel elderly nobleman who routinely oppresses the local serfs, fancies Chun Hyang and demands that she become his mistress, she refuses and is tortured, imprisoned and sentenced to death. Hardly a shrinking violet but not quite a budding feminist, Chun Hyang opts for passive resistance rather than righteous rage. But hey, we’re talking centuries ago.

The Tale of Chun Hyang is part of the continuing Films From The North series at the Korea Society in New York City. A selection of vintage classics from North Korea, the movies are being presented at the Korea Society every Thursday through May. In addition to The Tale Of Chun Hyang, are films about the Korean Civil War, and historical conflicts with Japanese imperialism. The continuing schedule and contact information, available at, is below:


Thursday, May 21

6:30 PM

Wŏlmi Island

92 minutes (1982)

Directed by Cho Kyong-sun

Starring Cho Kyong-sun, Choe Chang-su, Choe Tae-hyon and Yun Su-gyong

In this gripping and imaginative war movie a small troop of North Korean soldiers, armed with just four guns between them, defeats General Douglas MacArthur and 50,000 American soldiers at Inch’on.

Thursday, May 28

6:30 PM

The Flower Girl

120 minutes (1972)

Directed by Choi Ik-gyu and Pak Hak

Starring Hong Yong-hee, Pak Hwa-son, Ryu Hu-nam and Kim Ryong-rin

Adapted from an anti-imperialist opera from the 1930s, The Flower Girl is a tragic story of a family cruelly exploited by the Japanese colonial authorities and a clarion call for the Korean people to fight for the socialist revolution. The film was so popular when it was released domestically that Hong Yong-hee’s picture was printed on North Korean currency.

The Korea Society

950 Third Avenue @ 57th Street, 8th Floor

New York City

212-759-7525 extension 323.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.