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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
Chi-hwa-seong (Painted Fire) recounts the life of Korean painter Jang Seong-ub amidst the changing political landscape of late 19th century Korea.
However, the themes of this film center around the process of artistic creation through the fire of desire of the artist and the expectations and demands of their audience and society.
Jang seong-ub is played masterfully as a complex character who changes from the innocent excitement of youth to a hardened alcoholic tortured soul. This characterization mirrors the young eager artist that finds it more and more difficult to invoke the spirit of artistic creation within himself without letting the creative fire out via drink, erections, and desire.
Although this character development proceeds overall gradually through the film, the emotional complexity of Jang is still played in a constantly oscillating manner building to the films' finale. Interestingly, the montage of the film parallels this constantly changing and seemingly wild emotion or fire of the artist as scenes seamlessly transition from one time and location to another without any conventional 'cues' to the audience that such a scene change will occur. For example, many scenes would change seemingly in mid conversation picking up at another point and location.
The visual scenery of the film is presented beautifully and also oscillates from stark (and perhaps bleak) black and white scenery to more colorful and alive environments that again parallel the paintings of Jang either in simple black ink on white paper or with color added. Rainbows of color enter the film at points as the artist observes nature and especially women that then become reflected in his paintings.
The theme of an artist's individual desire to create versus the expectations and demands of society arises in the film through various points including class distinction, the domination of government over the artist, the accepted norms of the artistic elite, and the base desires of the common masses. Instead of creating his own completely original works, Jang finds himself mostly recreating masterpieces of other artists throughout East Asia. The question thus arises if recreation itself deserves artistic merit.
I wish that I was more familiar with the political events of the period to firmly grasp how they tied into the story - but beyond any comparison to the current role of Korean government in artistic expression and/or censorship I cannot comment.
Overall an extremely well acted film and the cinematography is often breathtaking. A great film to see and then ponder over.
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