Chihwaseon (aka. Painted Fire, Strokes of Fire) is an engaging biopic on the life of renowned Korean painter; Jang Seung-Ub. Directed by Im Kwan-Taek with lush award-winning cinematography by Jung Il-Sung, Chihwaseon uses the history and beauty of Korea as its backdrop. I am in a very disadvantaged position, since I do not have a strong knowledge of Korean History; I cannot tell whether this film is accurate to its roots and can only comment on how well the film has been made. But It does have Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) in the lead, so I was very compelled to see this one.
Jang Seung-Ub (Choi Min-Sik) is the quintessential painter of the Chosun Dynasty who was born in 1843 and disappeared without a trace (into the stuff of legend) in 1897. Jang lived a peculiar carefree life; he is an alcoholic and is a womanizer, but is an ingenious painter. He became a center for a lot of people's criticisms and lived during a drastic change in Korean history was occurring, he truly struggled to overcome the limits of his artistry. In his final stages of his life, he decides to leave everything behind and finally becomes a free man.
Although not as famous as other Korean painters, experts continue to hold his work in high regard.
When I first watched "Chihwaseon", I was awe-struck with the direction by Im, the beautiful cinematography by Jung, the excellent performance by Choi Min-Sik as the lead. So, I asked myself, what else is there to know about Jang Seung-Ub, other than he is a renowned painter during the Chosun period and that loves drinking and women? Well, I had to pay special attention to the subtle details, as this is a Korean film, this may be once again a character study or period study.
The beauty of "Chihwaseon" lies not only with its direction and superb visual execution; it lies on its proceedings. I've read that art experts of the Chosun period in Korea were called in to reproduce Jang's works, his authentic paintings were used for the film. To properly replicate Jang Seung-Ub's exquisite brush strokes, Choi Min-Sik went through an intensive training to give life to one of Korea's most cherished painters.
There is a very human characteristic present in the proceedings. However, I commend the director that instead on focusing his expression mostly on Jang Seung-Ub, he avoids the usual clichés inherent in other films about artists. The film is more about social status and how society expects a certain structure; it explores an artist who in all the political changes, manages to stand firm with his devotion to his art. The film also has a strong expression of romanticism that it felt like it wanted to create something of Jang's character. Noble men and leaders seek to influence Jang's paintings and he considers this an invasion of the true essence of art. Jang apparently wandered around in pursuit of the truth of art, he confirms his skills while painting with a wine bottle in one hand and as his fame grew, he challenges his own limits. Interestingly, he finds the state he has striven to attain in the form of a plain and misshapen bowl. Sadly, without knowledge of Korean history, I gained little from the references to the Chinese and Japanese struggles to a weakened Korea.
Aside from Kwan-Taek Im's direction and Jung's cinematography, the film draws its strength from its stellar cast. Choi Min-Sik once again gives an excellent portrayal and bears his soul for the audience. Jang is portrayed as a loner and usually expresses his contempt for those who seek to deaden the essence of art; Choi effectively brings his character to life, his fights with noble men and outbursts atop rooftops expresses pure agitation. He is joined by an excellent supporting cast: Ahn Sung-Ki plays Jang's mentor and actresses Kim Yeo-jin, Sun Yeh-jin and Yoo Ho-Jung play his various love interests. There is mild sexuality and nudity in the proceedings but will not turn off viewers since they are beautifully shot.
"Chihwaseon" may not be Im's best work but it is a very strong film about the life of Jang Seung-Ub. It does seduce the viewer with its very lush camera work and while some sequences felt a bit hurried, it would be unfair to expect a film to fully portray the life of a man in 2 hours. Im's other works have the unique ability to get under your skin, and while it would be unfair to impose such an approach with "Chihwaseon", Im definitely made this film with care and patience and has an uncanny ability to allure with its charms by execution.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [4 stars]
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