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Depicting the fire of a legendary Korean painter

Friday, July 18, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Recall "Frida" for Kahlo's and Rivera's significance to Mexico; "Lust for Life" for the Dutch phenomenon named Van Gogh; "The Agony and the Ecstasy" for Michelangelo in the Vatican.


RATING: PG-13 in nature for adult themes and subtitles
STARRING: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ho-jung, Ahn Sung-ki
DIRECTOR: Im Kwon-taek


Comparisons, however odious, are the only way to get our Western brains around "Chihwaseon" ("Painted Fire"), an epic biopic of Jang Seung-up's revolutionary influence on the art and culture of Korea.

The story, in director Im Kwon-taek's telling, begins in the 1850s during the Chosun Dynasty, which cultivated the highest levels of neo-Confucian statecraft, scholarship, music, architecture -- and, above all, art. But that 500-year-long dynasty, arguably the longest in human history, was in decline. A period of chaos was approaching, brought on by Western intrusions.

Jang as a young orphan is saved from a beating by nobleman Kim (Ahn Sung-ki). The boy, by way of thanks, gives him a picture in which the highly cultured man sees extraordinary potential. They will meet again, and Kim will become Jang's mentor, encouraging his artistic pursuits and giving him the immortal pen -- or pen-and-ink -- name "Oh-won."

"Hold the brush as if you had an egg in your palm," he is told. It's a golden egg, and Oh-won is a prodigy comparable to Mozart: He can paint a perfect copy from memory of a painting he saw only once. He follows and breaks the rules at the same time, with an uncanny ability to render fantasy as well as reality and combine them into one.

Painting must reflect the thought behind the shape, he believes. Imagination must breathe fire into it. Most of all, painting must be a reflection of knowledge.

Not least, a knowledge of women. Oh-won the commoner falls passionately in love with Mae-hyang (Yoo Ho-jung), a conflicted product of the social elite. But there are many issues, including the regent's 1866 decision to rid the country of Catholics -- some 8,000 of whom were beheaded.

They are separated by her need to run away. Oh-won, too, leaves home to wander in pursuit of "true art," finding his paradoxical inspiration in pleasure: alcohol and sex.

"If you want to learn to paint, first learn to drink," he declares. Pornography is a part of life, too, he insists -- and makes more than a few bucks with erotic art.

"How can I paint without an erection?"

It's a rhetorical question, answered not verbally but visually in subtly beautiful Kamasutra love scenes featuring ecstatic glimpses of flesh -- but never whole bodies.

I said he was a Mozart? More often, he's a raging Beethoven, screaming from the rooftops or burrowing into a pile of shredded paintings like a drunken hamster. Choi Min-sik plays him dynamically and brilliantly.

Korean art and ritual are worlds apart from Chinese or Japanese. Director Im Kwon-taek makes it his mission to depict that world -- and that difference -- in every shot and detail. The strange aristocratic headgear, for example, with its bizarre resemblance to orthodox Jewish hats or Daniel Day-Lewis' black stovepipe in "Gangs of New York."

You have to "read" Korean paintings from top to bottom, right to left, and in many ways you must do the same with this fascinating film. At its center is a Korean national legend whose brush was guided by some divine force and larger-than-life mystery: Artist and brush alike vanished without a trace in 1897.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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