Chihwaseon: Drunk on Women and Poetry

Sub-titled Drunk on Women and Poetry, this visually ravishing bio-pic traces the life and work of late 19th century Korean painter Jang Seung-up, a man as famous for his drunken womanising as for his beautiful paintings. Although born into a lowly family, Seung-up was encouraged by his father-figure and mentor, Kim Byung-mun, to develop his prodigious natural talent. The era in which the artist lived was one of social and political turmoil, with internal strife and Japanese invasions shattering his countrymen’s fragile sense of national identity. Yet through his paintings, says director Im Kwon-taek, Seung-up ‘wanted to show a paradise to a people living in agony.’
Seung-up’s personal life was tumultuous, his relationships with woman and authority figures compromised by his prodigious drinking, his wanderlust and his struggle to forge a unique visual style in the face of class prejudice, social conformism and political upheaval. Although Im Kwon-taek’s film lacks a conventional dramatic structure, preferring instead to focus on key episodes in Seung-up’s life, its breathtaking images of nature capture the still, ethereal beauty of the drunken master’s paintings. Jang Seung-up’s life and complicated times unfold in lush natural tableaux, deft brush strokes and Lear-caliber shouting fits to provide a portrait of the artist as the last innocent man in tumultuous 19th century Korea.
Chihwaseon is Im Kwon-taek’s 98th film. Although starting out in the industry as a journeyman director of genre pictures, in the last few decades he has made elegant, internationally respected features such as Chunhyang that deploy traditional folk idioms with vibrant urgency. Though Chihwaseon’s dramatic structure is looser than that of the sublime, intricately narrated Chunhyang, the director has found in Jang Seung-up (amazingly embodied by Choi Min-sik) a character equal in stature to his own cinematic ambitions. Im is now rightly regarded as Korea’s greatest living filmmaker, and his award for ‘Best Director’ at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was long overdue.
(Korea-France, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 117 mins.)

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