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'Hwang Jin-i' brings to life famous Joseon entertainer

2007/05/24 | 225 views | Permalink | Source

Hwang Jin-i, a high-profile female entertainer in the 16th century, provides a continuous stream of inspirations for Korean novelists, drama producers and filmmakers. Although historical facts about her life are sketchy at best, the Korean entertainment industry is rushing to exploit her colorful life.

"Hwang Jin Yi", directed by Jang Yoon-hyeon ("The Contact", "Tell Me Something"), is part of the trend that supposedly revisits the historical figure known for her salient artistic talent and provocative encounters with the yangban aristocrats, including a secret seduction scheme that destroyed a respectable monk.

There are only several poems attributed to Hwang, but the creative imagery and refined style suggest that she was a top-rated poet, though her primary role was to serve the upper class mostly at banquets by singing and dancing. Hwang is believed to be a figure who lived during the reign of King Jungjong (1506-1544), but no historical documents are available.
She is said to have jumped into the courtesan life at the tender age of 15 when a man who secretly loved her suddenly died of a disease. But then again, it is not clear why she chose the particular profession. What is clear is that Hwang was a great beauty in Gaeseong, now in North Korea, and her intelligence and artistic talent were widely known throughout the country.

The movie, based on a novel by North Korean writer Hong Seok-joong, is attracting keen attention in the film industry largely because it is one of the biggest projects in 2007 (the production cost is estimated at 10 billion won, or $10.7 million) and the Korean Wave stars Song Hye-kyo and Yoo Ji-tae play the main characters.

The spotlight is of course focused on Song's transformation into a Joseon Dynasty courtesan. Her public image as an actress is largely linked to that of an innocent girl. Song attempts to change that, trying to reveal subtle emotional expressions, though many moviegoers will still be drawn to her eye-opening beauty.

In the film, Hwang Jin-i (Song Hye-kyo), in her childhood, has a crush on a servant of the same age, named Nom-i (Yoo Ji-tae). Their puppy love, however, is abruptly crushed when they go out to join an outdoor Buddhist festival without the approval from her parents.

Nom-i gets kicked out of the house, but the two are destined to meet each other. Years later, when the death of Hwang's father leaves the family in disarray, Nom-i returns and helps manage the household.

Hwang Jin-i, meanwhile, is preparing for a marriage with one of the high class families in Seoul, but a sudden turn of events brings a destructive twist to the drama. Deeply disappointed, Jin-i decides to become a courtesan and emerges as a top-rated entertainer in Gaeseong, thanks in large part to her peculiar background.

The film initially focuses on the anger she feels when her identify is shaken up in a society where the class determines almost everything. But director Jang frequently switches between an identity drama and an action film, featuring Nom-i's fight against corrupt government officials a la Robin Hood.

The genre of the movie, therefore, is confusing. At one point, it is a historical drama. At other points, it is just a second-tier melodrama. Some action sequences suggest that the director wants the audiences to regard it as a spectacle-filled blockbuster, at least briefly.

Aside from the ambiguous genre, the film's pace is also problematic. Some of the scenes move at a slow pace, testing the patience of moviegoers. Of course, for Song's ardent fans, the movie is a great opportunity to appreciate her image to the fullest extent. But for those who want to see a movie about the highly interesting Joseon famous entertainer, the simple yet disjointed storyline is hardly inspiring, and the running time -- two hours and 21 minutes -- is unbearably long.

By Yang Sung-jin

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