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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Chi-hwa-seon (Painted Fire) (review)

Even those with no background in appreciating the sensuous, inky brushstrokes of Asian painting will be enthralled by this majestic and reflective biography of Jang Seung-up, considered Korea’s greatest artist. Some aspects will be familiar to fans of the artist-exposed biopic — the drinking, the philandering, the general debauchery — but director Im Kwon-Taek and star Choi Min-sik use those only as the basis for exploring another universality of the artistic temperament: the search for oneself. “Ohwon,” Jang named himself, and he was unquestionably a product of an intellectual culture, in late 19th-century Seoul, that made household names of artists and imbued them with almost a rock star-like aura… and yet this approbation and even adoration haunted Jang, who deemed himself unworthy, having begun life as an untutored peasant and begun his career only thanks to a wealthy patron who recognized his raw talent. But it’s the art — always, the art — that captivates, and the energy Choi pours into his onscreen painting, whether it’s erotic sketches for forbidden pornography or magnificent commissions for the royal court. Shot with an epic grandeur on Korean landscapes previously unseen on film, this is an elegant, painterly film, a masterwork from Im (named Best Director at Cannes in 2002). Extras are minimal but include slide show of some of Jang’s original work.

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MPAA: rated R

viewed at home on a small screen

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