Director: Im Kwon-Taek
Cast: Choi Min-Sik, Ahn Sung-Ki, Yoo Ho-Jung, Kim Yeo-Jin, Son Ye-Jin
Im Kwon-Taek is one of the best Korean directors who is prestigious not only in his own country but also overseas. He has directed about 100 movies up to date, with Chihwaseon as his latest work in 2002. This film has won quite a number of film awards in the local film award ceremony, as well as the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in Europe.
As the film title suggests, the story of this film is about the life of Jang Seung-Ub, a famous Korean artist in the 19th century who is said to possess incomparable talent in painting. He is regarded as "Chi-Hwa-Seon" (In Korean, this word literally means "the celestial drunken painter") because of his habit of drinking during he paints. Jang Seung-Ub (Choi Min-Sik) starts off as an orhpan, and his talent is later discovered by a reformist called Kim Byung-Moon (Ahn Sung-Ki). With his careful guidance and nurture, Jang's ability is able to be fully exhibited. However, just like any other genius in history, Jang's life is never happy. He finds it hard to interact with others or find anyone who can really appreciate his arts, which eventually leads him to follow a hermit life.
Director Im Kwon-Taek tells the story in a very delicate and tranquil manner, the narrative and the cinematic techniques are both very plain and direct, it seems that the director is very confident and believes that his story alone is solid enough to arouse the attention of the audience wholeheartedly. In addition, the cast is also very brilliant, especially Choi Min-Sik. It is obvious that he has spent some time to study his character. The postures and the gestures are captured so profoundly that makes the character look so real and vivid. The only problem is that some of the transitions are not easy to follow. Perhaps it is because I am not familiar with Korean history, or the costume of every male character is just too identical, I really couldn't figure out several characters easily and had a hard time figuring out who is who, as well as the time intervals between some scenes.
Jang Seung-Ub is a complex character. On the one hand, he is an alcoholic and loves to play woman; on the other hand, he respects his arts and his teachers sincerely. What is notable about this film is that the filmmaker is able to find a balance between these two extreme traits of the character without spoiling the plausibility of the story. It is as if Im Kwon-Taek has incorporated his own experience as an artist with Jang's life. In the movie, Jang's talent is not valued as he is often told to imitate ancient masters' paintings instead of painting at his own will. It parallels to what happens in the movie business, young directors are always asked to make movies under strict limitations, creative ideas that have no commercial value is seriously suppressed. Although I haven't seen too many of his movies, I would tend to make a rough assumption that the story of Jang Seung-Ub might have some biographical implications for the director himself.
In addition to the story, the cinematography is another part you should not miss. The sceneries are so beautiful that, each one of them is like a painting itself. What is more important is that, the director successfully combines the theory of Chinese painting with the cinematography, that is, the viewers are not only allowed to enjoy the painting from a two dimensional perspective, but are actually able to walk into the landscape and explore. The theory is demonstrated by the scenes when the characters are walking into the backgrounds. In some senses, the composition is very harmonial as the characters and the landscape have merged together and blended into one.
Chihwaseon may not be the best work of Im Kwon-Taek, but it is definitely one of the best Korean movies made in 2002. The Korean DVD version is well produced, the only flaw is that the DVD menu is in Korean language only.
Reviewed by: Kantorates