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The struggles of an artist. Jang Seung-up (1843-1897), also called Owon, focusing on the years 1882 to 1897, when Korea was in political upheaval, caught between China and Japan, the conservative dynasty dying, and peasant revolt at hand. Jang, born poor, has genius; a merchant, Kim, becomes his patron, finding him a teacher. Jang must convince others that a commoner can have talent, then move beyond his ability to copy old masters and find his own style. He's bedeviled by a temper and alcohol, arguments with patrons as he seeks commissions, and relationships with kisaeng, particularly Mae-hyang, that start and stop. It's the life of a restless spirit producing great art. Written by
Nobody, least of all me, will argue about the visual beauty of this film. It is very well done with majestic scenes of nature as well as tight claustrophobic shots of a tormented man at work in his shuttered studio. As a period piece it comes across as very authentic, and I give it high marks for its sets & costumes. So why didn't I like "Painted Fire"? Because I feel if you're going to do a film about an artist (or musician or writer or poet), of utmost importance is to convey exactly what drove, inspired and influenced the artist.
Excellent examples include "Amadeus" (1984) which showed Mozart being propelled by arrogance and perhaps moreso by his need to please and/or escape his domineering father. Or "Frida" (2002) shows that Frida's Kahlo's grotesque, often self-deprecating sexual paintings were the result of her dysfunctional romance and sexual subversion by her husband/mentor Diego. These films seek to explain the idiosyncrasies of the artists' works by digging deep into the personality, the psychology and the philosophies that drove the artist. That's why I like to watch films about artists--to get insight that we don't learn from textbooks.
Here in "Painted Fire" it felt more like a textbook reading of the life of Ohwon. It shows his base beginnings as an orphan who, in adolescence, joins the house of an aristocrat. Abruptly jumping ahead 20 years, it shows him as a frustrated drunk. He fights hard to divest himself of his vulgar origins but always swings back to his uncooth nature (drinking, womanizing). But why? What made him act the way he did? And how did it imprint the themes of his art? Not much of a connection is made; the man is shown to suffer from demons, but we are never shown what these demons are nor how they influenced his art. There are a few scenes where a peripheral character is whispering in the background about the symbolism in Ohwon's art ("The bird symbolizes freedom..."), but that's more of a broad cultural analysis rather than an analysis of Ohwon's psyche.
I am a fan of Ohwon's paintings and have always been hypnotized by how beautifully he painted animals and the majesty of trees. In my mind I fashioned a painter who found great solace and order in nature while conspicuously avoiding human subjects. This could have been a great point to investigate in the film. Did he love animals? Did he fear humanity? None of this is in the film, and none of his paintings are explained. We just see a drunk, crass man who possesses a rare artistic talent. What a missed opportunity.
Again, contrast this against, say, a scene in "Immortal Beloved" where Beethoven's reclusive genius is exposed as the result of his shame of being deaf and struggling to keep it secret. At the same time Beethoven is shown to have a great capacity to love, but explosively bitter when love is unrequited. In a scene he loses the love of his life because his carriage gets stuck in the mud on a stormy night, and as we watch the man's torment we hear his music "Apassionata" in conjunction with the frantic beating of the horses' hooves. Every work of art has its particular motive, and it's always fun to learn what that motive is.
"Painted Fire" does not give us motive. It left all my questions about Ohwon unanswered, presenting only a visual representation of what I already read in biographies. It gives us a good feel for what it was like to be alive in Korea in the late 1800s, it paints the culture and political unrest of a nation in flux. But none of this really seems to affect Ohwon. He is just a particle awash in this cinematic sea.
I can definitely see how it would win at Cannes because, on a technical level it should wow any film connoisseur. But on a literary level--meaning the act of telling a story and theme--it did not satisfy me. For that, I return to the works of Kurosawa, Teshigahara and even modern Asian masters like Takeshi Kitano, because I love their ability to incorporate cinematic prowess with the poetry of thought. "Painted Fire" was not an unpleasant experience, but I can't say it did anything exceptionally good for me.
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