Directed by Korean director Jeon Yun-Soo and based off the best-selling novel by Kee Jung Myeong titled “Baramui Hwawon” that presents an interesting take on the life of one of Korea’s greatest artist, Shin Yoon-Bok. “PORTRAIT OF A BEAUTY” has been criticized by historical scholars because of its very controversial theme; it suggests the possibility that Yoon-Bok was actually a woman who disguised herself as a man to gain acceptance in a male-dominated Confucian society of the Josean Dynasty. Kee Jung Myeong’s novel had no historical evidence to support this claim but the book still sold by the truckloads that it has also inspired the TV series called “Painter in the Wind”. This time around director Jeon adds a spicy touch of eroticism in the film and strong themes of repression during the Josean period.
As a child, Yun-Jeong Shin often painted for her older brother, Yoon-Bok. Her brother was pushed to painting by their father even though he had little talent and relied entirely on his sister to make his paintings. When the pressure became too great, her brother was pushed to commit suicide. Their father, upon discovering that Yun-Jeong was responsible for his brother’s paintings, drove her to take her brother’s identity (since women weren’t allowed to paint at the time) and wins a spot in the Royal Painting School. Now as an adult, under her brother’s identity of Yoon-Bok (now played by actress Kim Min-Su), she undergoes training under the tutelage of a master painter named Kim Hong-Do (Kim Young Ho) to become a royal court painter. Unfortunately, she finds herself wanting more and denies herself limits in her art; Yoon-Bok is looking for subjects to portray more genre paintings that depict lifestyle and true human truths. Her adventurous, naturalistic nature finds herself going against the laws of tradition by depicting sex and naked female forms. During this same time, her sexual curiosity begins to blossom and she also becomes attracted to a street hustler named Kang-Mu (Kim Nam Gil) that also crosses the lines of social class and causes gender perplexity.
“Portrait of a Beauty” has a very controversial premise; the thought of having a woman take the identity of a man to paint is very interesting. That, coupled with elements of a Shakespearean-tragedy and themes of hypocrisy and morality makes director Jeon’s film one very magnetic film. The film also makes Confucianism as the reasons for repression, balanced with Yoon-Bok’s journey and search for individualism. Director Jeon does have the perfect opportunity to portray the moral fibers and hypocrisy even in the society of today as well indicting the past. Now, admittedly, Jeon Yun-Soo may not be the perfect candidate for this film, but I have to commend his efforts in portraying the artistic aspects of the story. The film shows the art and style of Yoon-Bok, the execution and the results of the final product. Jeon gives the movie an authentic feel, while the film isn’t based on historical fact, it does capture the setting of this period. Aided by the lush cinematography and elaborate costumes and set designs, the film just never loses any of its details.
Truth be told, Yoon-Bok’s art is only barely touched upon by the screenplay, (unlike the Korean film “Chihwaseon: Strokes of Fire”) and focuses more on the film’s human drama. I liked the way the film portrays Yoon-Bok as being ahead of her time, she sees and paints with eyes of a woman; which makes her easily understood in the eyes of her all-male associates. Her superiors see some of her art as ‘smut’ given its depictions of naked women, of which during this time, was considered taboo. It does give Yoon-Bok good characterization, as we see her diverse art go from lush scenery, everyday life and the portrayal of sex. Jeon keeps the shots tasteful in its portrayal of graphic sex and nudity and never allows itself to merely become a cheap titillation factor. The film’s very graphic content of sex and nudity is inherent in the film’s plot. It serves to catalog Yoon-Bok’s sexual awakening, her artistry with an air of stupefaction and self-discovery. Depending on how you look at things, it is tempting to just see the film for its sexual content and it may as well be remembered for its long strong contents of graphic sex and nudity which may be a bad thing. For some reason, I cannot forget the images of the two nude women performing Kama Sutra positions while their audience is making out. (I am happy to report that you would learn a thing or two about sexual positions)
I know that this based on the book, but I would have wished that the film would’ve given more details about the Josean period. It left too many details for the viewer to fill out, and assumes that whoever is watching the film is a fan of Asian art. I also thought that some aspects of the script needed further development such as the relationship between Hong-Do and Sul-Hwa (Ja-Hyeon Chu). I do have to give a lot of credit to actress Min-Sun Kim, her portrayal as Yoon-Bok is just so mesmerizing and enthralling. She is convincing in her role as the lead protagonist but the director should have given her more disguise to be more convincing as a man; she still looked pretty scrumptious. It is a little hard to buy into that everyone thinks that she is a man. The script also has its share of problems (I didn’t exactly like the way it played out its ‘quadruple-love’ angle) but I was able to look pass it.
I went to this film with very little expectations and while I thought it wasn’t thoroughly engaging, “Portrait of a Beauty” is worthwhile for fans of films in this genre. Its main weakness is the fact that the director neglected to make Min-Sun Kim look more convincing as a man and it may well only be remembered with its scenes of gratuitous nudity and graphic sex. (Nothing wrong with that) The strong performance of Min Sun Kim is at the film’s emotional heart is enough to carry the film’s burden that gives the film a captivating life. The film transcends its controversy with impressive simplicity, restrained direction that enforces its artistry. “Portrait of a Beauty” is a good period drama in Korean cinema.