In a time of political and social unrest in nineteenth-century Korea, an uncouth, self-taught painter explores his natural talent amidst the repressive world around him.In a time of political and social unrest in nineteenth-century Korea, an uncouth, self-taught painter explores his natural talent amidst the repressive world around him.In a time of political and social unrest in nineteenth-century Korea, an uncouth, self-taught painter explores his natural talent amidst the repressive world around him.
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.
- Oct 22, 2014