Brush With Life 

Chi-Hwa-Seon’s portrait of a painter

Thursday, May 15 2003

The celebrated late-19th-century Korean painter Jang Seung-Ub loved booze and sex, had a violent temper, and went penniless for much of his life. Under most circumstances, that would qualify him for a biopic laden with booze and sex, a couple of close-ups of brushes stroking canvas, and some sloppy theorizing about how only the boozy and sex-mad, the dirt-poor and the tormented, achieve artistic greatness. Chi-Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire, a beautiful and exhilaratingly clear-eyed new film by the equally celebrated South Korean director Im Kwon-Taek (his 95th, following the well-received Chunhyang), is a demystification of just that kind of faux-Hemingway posturing. It has its own mystique — in clearing the brush away from the myths that have grown up around Jang Seung-Ub, the director has re-imagined the painter’s life and career in light of his own aesthetic obsessions — but the film’s sexy romanticism and its tragic sense of Korean history will thrill even those who have never set foot in an art gallery.

Jang Seung-Ub — or Oh-Won, as he came to be known in order to place him with two other definitive Korean artists — was an orphaned commoner whose life was saved when he was a boy by a high-ranking official. The man recognized a prodigious talent in a drawing made by the boy to express his gratitude, and encouraged him to pursue his art. Subsequently, Jang wandered about Korea, fornicating and drinking as he worked to replace the stolid realism of traditional painting with his own passionate subjectivity. Played with feral magnetism by veteran actor Choi Min-Sik, an Asian Gérard Depardieu, Jang is a man of appetites. You can see why half the courtesans in Korea line up for a roll in the hay with this unkempt creature, and why his work makes him the darling of peasants and black-hatted nobles alike.

Like the Chinese painters who first inspired him, Jang worked almost exclusively from nature. His paintings of trees, birds and mountains were (like Im Kwon-Taek’s movies) lush, deceptively simple and classical, and possessed of a startling clarity. But he revolutionized the flat representation of the traditional Chinese paintings that inspired him — his cranes flew off the paper, his mountains and oceans humbled the viewer, his trees rustled with emotion. He painted from desire, and drink and sex helped him. We never see him painting while blind drunk (an astute insight — I’ve never believed Hemingway, or any of his imitators, wrote well on a bender), but when he’s had a few drinks and a few whores, or better yet when he’s fallen in love (with a beautiful noblewoman who leaves him to escape persecution for her Catholic beliefs), he’s a better, braver painter. Certainly he suffers — Jang lived in terrible times, when Korea was beleaguered from within by corruption in high places and a restive peasantry, and from without by Chinese and Japanese invasions — but the source of his creativity is pleasure as well as pain. Chi-Hwa-Seon has all the stately dignity of a costume epic, but what drives the movie is a greedy, exuberant carnality that — for us, imprisoned in a film culture that’s stranded between puritanism and sleaze — feels like a revelation. Im Kwon-Taek is not the first to observe that in the most formal societies, a space will open for robust sexual expression (we now know that the Victorians were a filthy lot on the side), but he’s far from dewy-eyed about the pressures brought to bear on the artist. Jang Seung-Ub spent much of his adult life trying to avoid being beholden to politicians, nobles and kings — his only fruitful dependence was on his mentor, who urged him to answer to no one but himself. In the movie, both end up taking refuge with simple villagers, among whom Jang learns to make clay pots, and — irrepressible to the last — paints pictures on them. In real life, he disappeared without a trace one day close to the turn of the century. Im Kwon-Taek gives Jang the ending he deserves. He dies as he has lived, perpetually ablaze.

Related Stories

  • We Found Some Pre-Rolled Blunts! 2

    A few weeks ago, Toke wondered aloud: Why don't L.A. dispensaries sell blunts? As much as we enjoy a fine stuff Phillie, we don't have the dexterity to roll them ourselves. But it turns out there is a local merchant who sells them after all. West Hollywood collective TGE offers...
  • The Secret Club On Fairfax 7

    A black hearse pulls up out front of a club at 432 N. Fairfax, two blocks north of Beverly. On this stretch, most of the bars and restaurants have neon signs, but this club looks different. It's a dark, stone storefront with no sign and blacked-out windows. The door of...
  • Madzilla Blows Up 3

    Madzilla is here to pick up her money. Wearing a Rastafarian backpack, a fake gold watch and a gray tank top, she strolls into Crooks & Castles, a streetwear store on that trendy stretch of Fairfax. The clerks recognize her right away. They may have seen the 25-year-old, Long Beach...
  • Plan Check Fairfax Opens Tomorrow

    When we last left Plan Check in mid-June, the popular Sawtelle home of chef Ernesto Uchimura was busy building out their next iteration on Fairfax. Well, after the tenderest two-day soft open (République, by contrast, was soft open for somewhere between two weeks and a decade), Plan Check Fairfax is...
  • Henry Rollins: Public Space and Private Property 3

    For the last few days, I have been driving a pal visiting from the United Kingdom to and from the Cinefamily theater on Fairfax for a film festival. Near Melrose is a massive billboard advertising the next season of Sons of Anarchy. I noticed that an artist (or artists) filled...

CHI-HWA-SEON: PAINTED FIRE | Directed by IM KWON-TAEK | Written by KIM YONG-OK and IM KWON-TAEK from an original story by MIN BYUNG-SAM Produced by LEE TAE-WON | Released by Kino International | At Laemmle’s Fairfax

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Mon 22
  2. Tue 23
  3. Wed 24
  4. Thu 25
  5. Fri 26
  6. Sat 27
  7. Sun 28

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending