There was a time when being both a poet and prostitute was considered highly unusual. That would be sixteenth century Korea, when Hwang Jin-yi, known professionally as the kisaeng Myung-wol, was desired both for her beauty and her verses. Hwang Jin-yi has been a popular figure in Korean drama, having recently been the subject of a 2006 television mini-series and soon thereafter director Chang Youn-hyun’s Hwang Jin-Yi (Korean trailer here), which opened this year’s NY Korean Film Festival.
According to the director during a post-screening Q&A, this Hwang Jin-Yi speculates more on the courtesan’s back-story. We see her raised as a daughter of nobility, schooled in arts and letters and catered to by servants, including the young orphan boy Nom-yi. Of course, he falls in love with his mistress and their fates become intertwined. After a period of exile, Nom-yi returns to the household as a steward with fierce fighting prowess and a considerable working knowledge of the pleasure district.
The family’s fortunes have fallen since her father death, but her impending marriage promises to improve their position, until the engagement is suddenly cancelled. The family of her intended has learned a secret even she is not privy to: she is not of noble blood, but raised to the manor-born after her mother, a lowly maid, was attacked by her father and then cast out. With the truth public knowledge, her options are limited. She opts for the most independent life then available to common-born woman in Joseon-era Korea: the brothel. Now the grief-stricken Nom-yi takes on a new role as her procurer. Hwang becomes epic in scope, when Nom-yi essentially becomes a socialist revolutionary, while his true love precariously finesses the local lord, finding respect for her mind, despite selling her body.
Hwang Jin-yi, now Myung-wol, shows true grit in her time of existential crisis. While it might be difficult to believe a child of privilege could walk from such a life so easily, Song Hye-kyo sells it. Known for lighter roles in Korea, she shows real screen presence in this iconic role. It is her relationship with Nom-yi (played by Yoo Ji-tae, director of Out of My Intention, who is quite credible in his actions scenes) that at times stretches credibility. It was he after all, who revealed her secret, for reasons that seem tortured.
Hwang is notable as an example of South-North collaboration. It is adapted from a North Korean novel and its final scene was filmed in a mountainous province of the DPRK. So it is difficult not to hear traces of Northern propaganda when Nom-yi speaks of establishing a community without class distinctions where nobody starves (though that would be worlds away from the brutal North Korean reality).
With its lavish production values, Hwang looks great and features a fantastic lead performance. It would make for interesting viewing if ever programmed with similar themed films like the recent Japanese film Sakuran, although the stakes are considerably higher in Hwang. It screens again Sunday at BAM.