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Hwang Jin Yi

Song Hye-Kyo is Hwang Jin Yi.
Year: 2007  
Director: Jang Yoon-Hyun  
  Writer: Kim Hyun-Jeong, Kim Eun-Jeong, Hong Seok-Jung (original novel)
  Cast: Song Hye-Kyo, Yoo Ji-Tae, Ryu Seung-Yong, Yoon Yeo-Jeong, Oh Tae-Kyong, Jeong Yoo-Mi, Ye Soo-Jeong, Jo Seung-Yeon
  The Skinny: It strays too far from history and its titular character, but this latest version of the life story of Korea's favorite kiseang features enough that's good-looking to be mildly successful for what it is.
Kevin Ma:

     For his 1986 film about legendary Korean woman Hwang Jin-Yi, director Bae Chang-Ho avoided the usual biopic trappings by employing frustrating, alienating long takes and subtlety (read: slow silence). The latest big-budget retelling of Hwang Jin-Yi from director Jang Yoon-Hyun (The Contact, Tell Me Something) also tries to avoid the same trappings, but he uses action and star-crossed lovers instead of self-indulgent artistic devices to do so. In other words, it's Hwang Jin-Yi for summer at the multiplex. Still, despite its dubious intentions, this latest version is actually mildly successful for what it is.
     For those not in the know, Hwang Jin-Yi was a legendary figure who lived in 1500s Korea. Hwang was forced to become a kiseang - a singing and dancing entertainer much like the Japanese geisha - after she found out that her biological mother was a kiseang. Due to the lack of historical records, filmmakers, television producers and writers have been able to take artistic license with her story over the years. The film and its source material, an award-winning 2002 North Korean novel, are no different. Starring popular Korean drama star Song Hye-Kyo, this version of Hwang Jin-Yi adds a love interest in the form of Nom-Yi (Yoo Ji-Tae from Oldboy), a childhood friend and protector who Jin-Yi has been in love with all her life. After an extended exile, Nom-Yi returns to the Hwang household to help put it back into order. However, Jin-Yi cannot fall in love with Nom-Yi not only because he's born of a different social class, but also because she is set to marry into another rich family.
     Nom-Yi, on the other hand, finds a dirty little secret of his own: Jin-Yi is actually the offspring of a maid who was raped and impregnated. Everyone in town eventually finds out about Jin-Yi's past when the marriage is canceled, forcing her to choose exile to save the family honor and become a kiseang like her biological mother. Nom-Yi, racked with guilt for exposing Jin-Yi's secret, initially agrees to be her protector, but vanishes because of torturous jealousy. Thanks to efficient storytelling, the film also skips five years, wherein Jin-Yi becomes one of the most popular kiseangs in Song Do, attracting the attention of the new magistrate.
     That's when the film begins to go off the rails. Nom-Yi and his merry men have become local Robin Hoods, stealing from the government in order to help the people. By the third act, Hwang Jin-Yi is strangely no longer about Hwang Jin-Yi. Instead, it turns into a period drama about the conflict between Nom-Yi and the jealous new magistrate, with Jin-Yi as someone who happens to get caught in the middle. However, that's also when the film's pace picks up from its sluggish middle section, which is highlighted by random excursions, including the seduction of a well-known scholar (an episode from the history books) and a wise man who lives in the woods and isn't named Yoda. On the other hand, the middle section also appropriately focuses on its titular character and her various exploits as a kiseang, effectively making the fictional additions a double-edged sword.
     While the scene of Nom-Yi literally breaking someone's testicles by hand is nearly worth the price of admission, his existence undermines what is supposed to be Hwang's life story, reducing the film to a melodramatic tragedy of unrequited love. People who enter the theater looking for an empowering "chick flick" about woman who defied the odds to become the most famous kiseang in Korean history will see only half the story. Instead, you're more likely to find an entertaining epic for the masses with action and enough melodrama to fill a night of Korean television.
     In its current form, the film only amounts to a contrived blend of well-known episodes from Jin-Yi's life (some events are depicted in both the 1986 and the 2007 films) and fictitious subplots that deviate too far from its source material. Jin-Yi is supposed to be a famous kiseang, but the film mostly shows her refusing to do what she does best. When making a movie about Korea's most famous kiseang, you should at least show its protagonist doing what made her famous in the first place. If director Jang had wanted to tell the story of a tough woman in a period where women are not known to be tough, plus add in some ass-kicking along the way, then he didn't need to use Hwang Jin-Yi to do it.
     Then again, Jang never insisted that his film intended to be historically accurate in the first place. Instead, the 2007 Hwang Jin-Yi should be seen as just a handsomely produced variation of a legend rather than a faithful retelling of history. It's an aspiring big-budget blockbuster that is nothing like Jang's previous works, which may be both good and bad. While Jang should get credit for trying to inject some excitement into a classic story, is it that difficult to have a movie about Hwang Jin-Yi that actually tells a straightforward story about Hwang Jin-Yi? (Kevin Ma 2007)

Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
Art Service Korea
2-Disc Limited Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean language track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Korean subtitles
Various Extras
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen