Joining the ranks of successful films about the lives and the work of great artists, “Chihwaseon” is the vibrantly told saga of an uncouth, self-taught painter who lived and worked in Korea in the second half of the 19th century, a time of political and social upheaval in the country. Grounded by a vigorous, physical performance from Choi Min-Sik, who brings both earthiness and grandeur to the central role, the film vividly evokes the world of an obsessive natural talent who lived and worked in a sometimes violent and repressive era. Combination of art, sex and politics is a combustible one which suggests the pic may become director Im Kwon-Taek’s most accessible film in the West, with further fest exposure assured. Distribs and TV programmers seeking out quality fare from Asia should also take a look. Im shared the best director prize at Cannes.
Among the film’s greatest attributes are the scenes in which the viewer is allowed to observe the artistic process. There’s a complete fascination in watching as the artist attacks his canvases, using broad brushstrokes at times but at other times the most delicate lines and details.
Though his work was often confined to boldly delineated black and white images, the artist also used color with flair, his reds inspired from the time when, as a teenager, he suffered from a nose-bleed and blood dripped onto his work.
Jang Seung-Up (1843-1897), who took the name of Ohwon, endures a miserable childhood (depicted by Im in the briefest of flashbacks), characterized by poverty and violence. From this he emerged as a great natural painter.
Heavily influenced by Chinese water colors of trees, blossoms and birds, his work was admired by Japanese art experts, and the combination of these foreign influences on his work and life parallel the political events in Korea at the time, when there was widespread reaction against foreign interference in the country.
In handsomely staged and often quite brief scenes, some of them lasting no more than a few seconds, Im explores the life of this rough diamond and natural talent.
Ohwon is an exceedingly heavy drinker, who regularly functions in an alcoholic stupor. His sexual urges are also powerful. As a young man he’s attracted to the sickly daughter of his master, and he suffers greatly when he’s left alone on the night of her wedding. He also revels in the company of bar girls and prostitutes.
Five women are featured in the film, one of them a Catholic who is killed in one of the purges that takes place during this volatile period of Korean history. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Ohwon is engaged in vigorous sex with one of his female partners when the couple are forcibly pulled apart by officials who have come to arrest him.
Whether he’s furiously painting, getting into fist fights in a bar, or bellowing at a thunderstorm which is raging overhead, Choi’s majestic performance enthralls. The real Ohwon disappeared, mysteriously and without trace, in 1897, and the film ends on an extremely somber note in which the artist, having become interested in painting ceramics, works in collaboration with a potter and, one day, simply clambers into the blazing oven where the pots are made.
Im uses rich colors and vibrant sound to recreate the world of a man who was a law unto himself in a rigidly controlled and traditional era. Ohwon emerges as a very modern character, a rebel who fights against censorship and attempts by the authorities to curb his personal freedoms.
Production values are sumptuous, and the film covers an awful lot of ground in less than two hours — in fact, at one viewing, it’s almost impossible to take it all in. It’s one of the prolific director’s most impressive and accessible efforts.