An orphaned beggar at an early age in a highly class-stratified society, Ohwon can barely afford paper and ink to make drawings. But his need to do so leads to his using whatever materials he can scrape up, which in turn leads to early recognition of his above average talent. As depicted here, the local nobility are all art critics as well as collectors, and they are only too ready to take advantage of a new discovery. This attention to his work develops into a patronage for young Ohwon by Kim Byung-moon that provides him a means to pursue his art free from worries about basic necessities.
Ohwon, maturing as a man as well as an artist, becomes widely renowned first for his expert copies of the works of known masters, then as an exponent of readily sold commercial art to order. But even as his fame and dominance in the art market rises, the traditional style of painting becomes more and more inadequate to his aesthetic vision. Instead of simply enjoying success, he sets out to find his "true art." Along that journey, he experiences some rather tormented relationships with women, mostly courtesans (similar to Japanese geishas), and discloses an explosive personality given to destructive outbursts.
During these rants of violence, he destroys the furnishings of his surroundings as well as his work which, though extremely saleable, falls short of his higher vision. Alcohol distracts him from dissatisfaction with his progress, sometimes resulting in a new expression painted while within its grip. Sober, he sometimes discovers something in his stupor-induced images that could help lead him to his goal.
A disciple asks Ohwon why he wants so much to change his art. "People find in my pictures what they expect", he explains. "If I don't change I'll always be their prisoner." Thus, the credo of an artist who struggles throughout his life to produce art beyond the prevailing realism and formality is formed.
Budgetary limitations in making the movie are evident in part by abrupt cuts and somewhat crude storytelling, but writer-director Im Kwon-taek, in this his 95th film, keeps the narrative on its historical track, bumping along in an episodic chain of events. While this jumpiness tends to hold his subject at objective arm's length, scenes of the artist discovering objects and forms in nature are telling instances of an artist's quest, suggesting where the mystery of inspiration comes from.
While there are no performances that rise to memorable, the formality of Korean culture and speech in Kwon-taek's framework seems to diminish the need for acting virtuosity. Lead Choi Min-sik ably develops some sympathy and interest for his struggling artist, but it seems to be accomplished more by the story's constant focus on him than by innate charisma or intimate connection.
Kwon-taek pays attention to his casting of women characters, perhaps taking a lesson on its importance from Chinese directing giants, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine). Scenes between Ohwon and his ladies reveal aspects of the man beyond brush and ink, like difficulties with commitment and his tendency toward emotional contradiction, and they include a fairly explicit moment of lovemaking.
Despite its limitations, this film from South Korea is worthy of attention. It's not a country known for making films that appeal to widespread tastes, yet this one attempts to say something about the universality of art and the nature of creative expression, matters of concern to art-lovers everywhere. While paying homage to a national hero, the biography flashes often on the artist's revolutionary brush strokes, where we experience the passion behind the legend.
Aka Chi-Hwa-Seon and Chihwaseon .
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th May 2002
Distributed by: Kino International
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 33 Rotten: 7
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Im Kwon-taek
Producer: Lee Tae-won
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