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Think Korea: Ahn Eun-mi’s Chunhyang, at the Peacock Theatre

Ahn Eun-mi adapts the Chunhyang story for this special show at the Peacock.

Chunhyang (An impossible Love)

Date: 11-12 April, 2006
Venue: Peacock Theatre



Chunhyang (An impossible Love) is the tragic tale of love between a rich governor’s and a cuurtesan’s daughter. The tale is one of only five surviving examples of Pansori, ancient Korean folk opera, and has been told numerous times in song and film. EUN-ME AHN follows the traditional story, but updates it to a completely new setting, in which 21 dancers, singers and musicians give a fascination interpretation of the story. Chunhyang combines highly expressive singing, which is raw, melodious and full of dramatic twists, with beautifully stylised dance.The result is poetic. erotic, moving and humorous.

EUN-ME AHN is renowned in Korea and New York for her highly energetic and visual work, designing elaborate costumes for her shows. Her choreography is oftend likened to the avant-garde dance from of Butoh that originated in Japan in the 1960’s, and she is renowned for working against stolid dance traditions to invent a new language that brings all of the life and energy of modern Korea to the state.

Script: Yong-Ku Park (English Translation: Inhye Lee)

Eun Mi Ahn’s Chunhyang is played in the opera buffa format.

Act 1 – Auditioning a son-in-law

Scene 1

Time flies. It is a great grief to Wolmae that her daughter Ch u nhyang has become a spinster, although she still sways her ponytail like a little girl.

Chunhyang seems far away from getting married. All these years of observing her mother dealing with scamps, playboys and libertines has educated her so well that she has become an expert at telling the savage, bestial side of men. She also gets smarter year after year; therefore, Chunhyang only pretends to follow her mother’s master plan.

Alas, Chunhyang’s left cheek is covered with ugly age spots.

Wolmae lights up a fire to arrange the stage to audition her future son-in-law. All kinds of guys are appearing for the event and ladies who crowd after it are yielding way to them. A swarm of guys with lustful thoughts, expecting either to get a mistress or to take a second wife, are dancing with the silhouette of Chunhyang’s nude projected behind the screen.

Chunhyang finally presents herself out of the darkness with a torch in her hand that only emphasizes her hideous left cheek. Disappointed at her real figure, men try to duck out of the scene, and Chunhyang sticks out her tongue to make fun of them. All that makes Wolmae even more annoyed so she stomps the ground with anger.

Scene 2

A wooden floor in the back is a multi-purposeful set that will be used for Wolmae’s house, the Ojakgyo (a mythical bridge that is believed to be built once a year by crows and jays to reunite a sadly parted couple on the night of July 7 of the lunar calendar), the jail and the government office (court).

Time is early spring, around June 15th, when Korean people take a bath on the bank of the stream and eat traditional food to get away with the sizzling heat of the hot summer days.

Nearby the Ojakgyo, Chunhyang is joyfully dabbling in water with her friends. Bangja (Monglyong’s male servant) peeks at the scene and gives his pubescent master Monglyong a piggyback to let him have a glance at Chunhyang over a tree branch. The branch breaks and Monglyong falls down to the water. With a splash, he ends up throwing himself into Chunhyang’s breast as if they are made for each other from the beginning.

Soaked to the skin, Monglyong follows Chunhyang to dry his clothes at her house.

Scene 3

As a former gisaeng (similar to geisha in Japan) who has tasted all the sweets and bitters of life, Wolmae feels that this is the most fortunate event. Elated, she dresses up Monglyong with fresh new clothes and she drives him and her daughter into a single room and giggles with complacency. A love veteran Wolmae is dying to coach Chunhyang how to seduce Monglyong; nevertheless, her daughter and Monglyong already start playing with each other spontaneously.

Scene 4

Now Monglyong is completely in love with Chunhyang, who is just as delicious as a ripened peach. Monglyong pushes aside study and the couple is hopelessly devoted to each other day and night. In the back screen of the set, an indigo and red kite swings in the blue sky as to symbolize their love.

Meanwhile, accompanied by a flamboyant marching band, the newly appointed governor Byon (Byon Hakdo) passes by the Ojakgyo like a shadow. Act one gradually fades out as the forthcoming separation of Chunhyang and Monglyong is insinuated.

ACT 2 – Dream in jail

Scene 1

People say that we don’t dream in color. So, the costume of this sequence is set to black and white. Quietude would be required as well.

Chunhyang is summoned to court since governor Byon insists on checking out every gisaeng in town to find the most beautiful one. Chunhyang tries to encourage other summoned girls to speak up for themselves as she feels their fate hangs in the balance, but they do nothing but shrink back. Chunhyang grunts deep inside her heart and laments her status as gisaeng.

Chunhyang’s upfront attitude triggers governor Byon’s rage, and he furiously orders his staff to imprison her. Byon, notoriously philandering, grins and delights himself in imagining exploiting her at his will.

Scene 2

Shadows from inmates’ white gowns and warders’ dark uniforms make the jail’s atmosphere even more eerie. Governor Byon’s movement gets more grotesque. On the stage, there are two Byons: a sadistic one approaches Chunhyang to harass her; his alter ego is also on the stage to represent masochism. For Chunhyang, the whole situation is nothing but disgusting. Bestial dance of this trio expresses discords and conflicts among the three.

Chunhyang’s long-awaited, beloved Monglyong appears on the stage. However, to Chunhyang’s utmost surprise, governor Byon is drawn to Monglyong and moves towards him. Monglyong, a cute boy with a pale face and beautiful eyebrows, and Byon, a well-built mid-aged man, are physically attracted to each other.

Discovering the scene, Chunhyang gets confused and deeply hurt. Desperate Chunhyang jumps into her mother, who is visiting the jail just about the time; mother is always a shelter to a child.

When the clock strikes midnight, Chunhyang is frightened to wake up from her deadly nightmare.

Think Korea images

ACT 3 Here comes the royal secret investigator

Scene 1

The scene fades in as a light falls on the part of a painting by a genre painter Hyewon: the painting shows an aristocrat moving around his fingers on a gisaeng’s crotch. The erotic scenic atmosphere resembles the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel’s world.

People are gathering to celebrate governor Byon’s birthday.

On the wooden floor, a group of corrupt bureaucrats are indulged in dirty sex: a 40-year-old virgin government official sucks a juvenile girl’s juicy fingers; a minister hopping on a girl’s back never wants to get off; a county governor is indulging in six nine all over the floor; a district general is riding on the top of a girl; a senile government staff is getting a blow-job from a retiring old gisaeng.

In the kitchen below the floor, a maid is busy stealing the food; office assistance is restlessly trying to seduce a prim girl from the sewing department; sleazy Bangja flirts with a kitchen maid; a young and wanton widow is mixed with a mustached policeman.

The sultry scene of both the upper and the lower classes clears off when governor Byon shows up to the feast. People step aside, keep down their movement and center their eyes to what will be the highlight of the party: Chunhyang is being dragged to the middle of the stage as cuffed from the jail. Commander of flogging punishment throws Chunhyang onto the ground, so she rolls over the stage. The commander vigorously steps forward with a heavy flogging stick.

All of a sudden, loud percussion music starts to reverberate through the feast and a cloud of homeless beggars comes out of nowhere. Beggars quickly surround the commander and start a circle dance. The fuss infuriates governor Byon and perplexes all the party guests, but the homeless crowd keeps on dancing with excitement no matter what.

When the commander tries to stop the fuss with his flogging stick and targets Chunhyang, Monglyong appears from the dancing flock and lifts up high his Ma-pae (royal secret investigator I.D.). Now beggars take off their shabby clothes and they are royal secret investigator’s secret force. They rush into the floor and thrust out the corrupt bureaucrats at lightning speed. Common people waiting outside the feast also join the force and make a full frontal assault on the bureaucrats to revenge past sufferings.

Chunhyang, Monglyong, Wolmae and Chunhyang’s servant Hyangdan go up to the floor and prepare the happy-ending ceremony: heart-formed balloon kites are flying towards the stage from behind the audience; Chunhyang’s age spots are now beautifully covered by the bridal make-up that she is wearing.

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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