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Mysteries of artistic genius

'Chi-hwa-seon' deftly used more ambiguity than detail in its look at a Korean painter.

May 16, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

In "Chi-hwa-seon" (Painted Fire), a vividly entertaining portrait of the artist as a boozing womanizer, the 19th century Korean painter known as Oh-won comes across as a man with an irrepressible lust for life. Born into poverty, the artist sprang from the lower depths to become a cultural treasure. Still, although his gifts were transcendent, the man was anything but: Even when ensconced in the royal palace, Oh-won stayed true to his humble roots, rolling about the floor of his gilded cage while bellowing such delicate apercus as, "I can't work without an erection!"

It's thought that Oh-won was born in 1843 and died in 1897, but the years in between remain blurred. Such vagueness could pose a burden for biographical exploration, but for director Im Kwon-taek, ambiguity proves greatly liberating. Freed from the constraints of historical fealty, Im recounts the painter's life in bold strokes rather than with the literalist's painstaking detail, and in the process tells us more about the mysteries of genius than a bushel full of quotidian fact.

For Im, what matters aren't Oh-won's vague early years or the precise coordinates of his journey, but how a man who seemed to emerge from his country's very soil -- his orphan face smeared and body clothed in rags -- became an artist whose renown reached as far as the imperial courts of Korea's onetime colonial master, Japan.

The story of genius can be a tedious affair, filled with self-consciously special people indulging in their gifts and neuroses at the expense of everyone else. Filmmakers love stories about such tortured souls, and the image of Nicole Kidman, as Virginia Woolf, sucking on a fountain pen in "The Hours" while wearily announcing that genius doesn't have to live in the same dreary world as the rest of us, typifies the movies' customary neurasthenic approach. But watching actors furiously knit their brows together in an agony of creation says little about how one man looks at a crane and sees a bird while another transforms the creature into a work of art that, in its enchantment, is the equal of its inspiration.

Genius can be witnessed, desired, envied and loathed but never understood. Im adores his unruly subject, who as an adult is made flesh and boiling blood by actor Choi Min-Sik, but because he doesn't know what made Oh-won tick (or doesn't care), he doesn't try to explain him. There's as little psychological interpretation in "Chi-hwa-seon" as there is historical accounting, only a man in the sensual world. Every so often, a date flashes on screen as the painter bustles by troops whose changing uniforms signal the nation's instability, but Oh-won pays them as little mind as the director. That makes "Chi-hwa-seon" more engaging than the average dusty pageant and mercifully easygoing, especially for audiences unfamiliar with Korea's past.

Im betrays little interest in the specifics of Korean history, but the preservation of the country's cultural riches is at the heart of his later work. He began his career grinding out genre pictures, but in the last few decades has directed elegant, internationally respected features like "Chunhyang" that deploy traditional folk idioms with vibrant urgency.

With his new film, however, Im isn't serving as an archivist or simply reaching for the puzzlement of creation; rather, he's after some core mystery about his country. Oh-won doesn't just represent a rollicking good story for Im; he embodies something essential and essentially indestructible about Korea itself, a country that has somehow sustained its integrity despite epochs of domination.

Although his film couldn't be more different from this one, Paul Schrader once wrote that at the end of "Taxi Driver" Travis "has not been changed, he's been revealed." The idea that lives can be charted like road maps remains a cherished fantasy and often signals the death of character and drama. In "Chi-hwa-seon," a man's life and the country in which he took root change but remain fundamentally unknowable, and all the more beguiling for it.

The years pass as do the ruling powers, but the world continues to offer up its glories. It whispered its secrets to Oh-won, who, in the arc of birds in flight and in the violent beauty of a woman's red dress against a field of green, returned the favor with his art -- then passed on the lesson to another.



MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Some discreet lovemaking, mild adult language.

Choi Min-sik...Jang Seung-up (Oh-won)

Yoo Ho-jung...Mae-hyang

Ahn Sung-ki...Kim Byung-moon

Kim Yeo-jin...Jin-hong

Son Yae-jin...So-woon

Released by Kino International. Director Im Kwon-taek. Producer Lee Tae-won. Executive producer Kang Woo-seok. Screenplay by Kim Yong-oak, Im Kwon-taek; story by Min Byung-sam. Cinematographer Jung Il-sung. Editor Park Soon-duk. Costumes MBC Art Center, Lee Hye-ran. Music Kim Young-dong. Production designer MBC Art Center, Joe Byung-doh. In Korean, with English subtitles. 1 hour, 57 minutes. Laemmle Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 655-4010.

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