Take a Drink: for each new painting
Take a Drink: whenever Jang Seung-up’s humble beginnings are referred to
Take a Drink: for each big time jump
Take a Drink: whenever Seung-up drinks sul (alcohol) or is drunk
Do a Shot: every time he’s a chauvinist asshole
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Here’s some personal information for all those (surely… dozens of?) Henry J. Fromage stalkers out there to glom onto. I lived in South Korea for two years and am now married to a beautiful, similarly strange-humored Korean woman (sorry, stalkers). As such, I’ve gotten quite familiar with Korean cinema, one of the most dynamic film cultures in the world (no, my wife’s not making me say that).
For the foreseeable future I’m going to write one Korean film review a week, a Korean Kinema Korner if you will, and spread it’s good word a bit. First up: Im Kwon-taek’s Cannes Best Director-winning Chihwaseon (Painted Fire in the U.S.). The film tells the life story of 19th century master painter Jang Seung-up (Choi Min-sik) as he battles to overcome his humble upbringing, his abusive alcoholism, and his inconsistent muse to fulfill his prodigious promise.
As befitting a film about a great painter specializing in nature and landscapes, Chihwaseon is gorgeously shot. DP Jeung Il-seong and Director Im Kwon-taek pack the film full of beautiful frame after beautiful frame, creating what would be a hell of a tourist video by showing off a variety of locales and every season in their full glory.
I might leave this scene out if I was the Tourism Board, though.
Going hand-in-hand with that natural beauty are top-notch production design and costuming, which bring to life a late Joseon Dynasty Korea clinging to centuries-old traditions in a time of great change. Choi Min-sik, who you may recognize from Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, or Luc Besson’s recent Lucy, brings his typical level of intensity to the role, but directs it inward. His Jang Seung-up is a man tortured by his background, straining against societal pressures and taboos, and relentlessly striving to define himself and his art. Whenever he is overwhelmed, that’s when his drunken asshole werewolf comes out.
For the record, Drunken Asshole Werewolf starring Choi Min-sik needs to happen now.
There’s a streak of humor running through the film that keeps it from being completely dour, though, particularly from Jang’s on-again, off-again adolescent helper, whose matter-of-fact observations never fail to draw a laugh. This tails off in the final act, though, when Jang finds his success just as his talent and desire begin to wane, and political changes throw his life into turmoil. He struggles to reconnect with his muse, to recapture those long-ago fits of inspiration, but the film ends much like much great art, with a note of melancholy.
There’s some bad dubbing here and there, as well as some bizarre time jumps and flashbacks (I’m pretty sure Choi Min-sik came out of the womb looking like a 50 year old man),
Boy, puberty is weird.
but the main issue with the film is that it has classic biopic-itis: it tries to cover too much territory. While arguably the whole point of the film is showing the ebb and flow of his talent and artistic fire, the addition of multiple political intrigues and romances distracts from and confuses that narrative thrust at times.
Chihwaseon is a beautiful portrait of the unique challenges and joys of the artistic process, and how it can consume a life… and give it meaning.