Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Vacation Part 3: Namwon


It should first be said that I choose to return to Namwon, and convinced the rabbit to do so out of pure nostalgia. Namwon was one of the many stops on our school field trip itinerary two years ago with the grade 3 students, it is a city that serves as the backdrop for Korea's most famous love story, Chunhyangjeon, and it was the place where the rabbit and I, as cheesy as it sounds, started our own little love story.

Namwon is a small town with a slightly smaller population than Buyeo's, though I would venture a guess that they get a little more traffic than does the former Baekje capital.


As a result of the Chunhyang story, Namwon seems to have happily adopted the role of "Theme City of Love" which is actually the city's official slogan, like "Happy Suwon" and "Seoul: Soul of Asia". Namwon's official logo is a stylized heart, whereas Buyeo's is a mascot with a head made of the famous incense burner, and Jeonju's is a couple of mascots with hanji fans for hair... you get the idea.


Anyway, the high point for most visitors to Namwon is Gwanghalluwon, a traditional garden that is probably the most historically lovely one in the country - take that, Biwon! It's a smallish area that can be pretty fully explored in less than an hour, but on a nice day, it's a great place to take one's time, sit in one of the many pavilions, and just relax.

For those who want to further explore the Chunhyang tale, however, Gwanghalluwon is also the place. Using some of the photos I took in Namwon, let me relate the much abbreviated story of Chunhyang here, accompanied by some helpful photos which add their own colour to the tale...

"Mong-ryong, a son a of a Namwon nobleman, goes out to Gwanghalluon one night to take a break from constant study. While hanging-out in the garden's main pavilion with his servant, Bang-ja, he sees a hot girl on a swing. This is Chun-hyang, the daughter of a local entertainer.


Mong-ryong decides that he needs to meet this beautiful girl, so Bang-ja arranges a meeting that night at the girl's mother's house. Apparently, that's enough to convince all three parties that the two yoots should marry that very night, but in secret only, as it simply wouldn't do to have the son of a lord marry such a lowly, however lovely, girl. Mong-rong takes his nightly prize over the next few months while the pale and nightmarish mom watches.


Sadly, Mong-ryong's father is relocated to Seoul, and Mong-ryong must accompany him to the capital in order to complete his high level exams. Chunhyang begs him not to go, and apparently narrowly avoids getting run over by his horse.


With Mong-ryong's father away, the new magistrate in Namwon begins to act-out - ignoring his duties to the citizens of the area, Namwon begins to fall apart while the magistrate sets his sights on bedding every possible young girl in town. He finally seeks-out Chunhyang, and when she refuses, citing her loyalty to her absent husband, he beats her and imprisons her.


Mon-ryong, having graduated from his exams with flying colours, decides to become a secret royal inspector. He returns to Namwon in disguise as a beggar and stealthily interviews the locals from whom he learns that not only has Namwon gone to shit, but his lady love has been sexually assaulted and imprisoned.



A few days later, the magistrate plans to celebrate his birthday by executing Chunhyang in the palace courtyard... but wait! Still disguised, Mong-ryong appears with his royal guards and reads aloud a newly written poem which reveals all of the wrongs the magistrate has done to the city. Mong-ryong denounces the magistrate, and then, just to make sure that his now-bleeding and broken secret wife is still faithful, asks her with his disguised voice from behind a fan if she will sleep with him. Fat chance of that - if this girl can have both of her legs flogged and still say no to royalty, what hope does this new guy have?


When Chunhyang again replies that she will remain loyal to her husband, despite the fact that apparently all royal visitors to her town want to have sex with her, Mong-ryong reveals himself, expresses admiration for Chunhyang's loyalty, and she remarkably doesn't punch him in the face.

They live happily ever after."

So, that, minus a few details, is the story. Namwon hosts a "Chunhyang Festival" every year, celebrating the girl's faithfulness to her husband and highlighting the town's own unique history and culture. A "Miss Chunhyang" contest is also held each year.

I don't so much mind the story. In the context of the Korean canon of "dutiful sons" and women who remain inexplicably faithful to absent and abusive husbands, it's a relatively mild affair, and told well, even has its charms.

A few film versions of the story exist, but the one the rabbit and I checked-out in a DVD bang the night before leaving Jeonju was a 2010 film by the name of Bang-ja Jeon...

Remember this dopey-looking summumabitch?



No - not me... Bang-ja! He's Mong-ryong's loyal servant who arranged the lover's meeting in the first place. The new film reveals a new spin on the traditional tale, in that Bang-ja, not Mong-ryong, get's into Chunghyang's bed chamber first, and that theirs is the love worth remembering, even if it wasn't worthy of surviving as a nationally treasured folktale - something the film suggests was manufactured out of greed.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most film versions of the Chunhyang story are likely as banal and unsurprising as the wikipedia entry of the folktale. I don't want to give away too many surprises, but should you decide to satisfy your Chunhyang curiosities and watch what is now considered a blasphemous version of the famous story, you will at the very least be entertained (and perhaps periodically infuriated) by Bang-ja's Story (방자전).


The people of Namwon protested the film's release last year as, in many senses, the new story craps all over the town's main reason for being. A warning though for those with sensitive constitutions, there is a lot of sexy time in this film. Bang-ja tries a whole bunch of new stuff with Chunhyang, and it turns out he's a pretty strong guy.

It also turns out that most every version of the Chunhyang tale on film will come with it own depictions of explicit Mong-ryong / Chunhyang trysting. The photo below was taken of an otherwise tame movie that was playing in a Chunhyang history hall in a corner of Gwanghalluwon - this near the kiddy swings and arrow-tossing games. The still photo didn't accurately capture the thrusting motion.



Still, I think the new version of the story has enough surprises and depth to merit a watch. Go for it.

All in all, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Namwon as a brief stop-over or overnight visit. Gwanghalluwon is a must-see, though you would be fine skipping the "Chunhyang Theme Park" which is a collection of 3D models and houses representative of the story and time, though you can avoid the 6,000 won entrance fee after 6 PM. If you happen to be in the area in May, certainly seek-out the Chunhyang festival. I would imagine there would be some real points of interest then.

But where did we stay in Namwon, the Theme City of Love? As much as I wanted to go for a love motel, we went for a quaint little inn just outside of the city. It was comfortable, but there were no mugs - only drinking glasses in which to have our morning coffee, so I protected our hands from the heat with my socks. Don't worry, they were clean.




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