The celebrated late-19th-century Korean painter Jang Seung-Ub loved booze and sex, had a violent temper and went penniless for much of his life. Under most circumstances, that would qualify him for a biopic laden with booze and sex, a couple of close-ups of brushes stroking canvas, and some sloppy theorizing about how only the boozy and sex-mad, the dirt-poor and the tormented, achieve artistic greatness. Chi-Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire, a beautiful and exhilaratingly clear-eyed new film by the equally celebrated South Korean director Im Kwon-Taek (his 95th, following the well-received Chunhyang), is a demystification of just that kind of faux-Hemingway posturing. It has its own mystique—in clearing the brush away from the myths that have grown up around Jang Seung-Ub, the director has re-imagined the painter's life and career in light of his own aesthetic obsessions—but the film's sexy romanticism and its tragic sense of Korean history will thrill even those who have never set foot in an art gallery.
Jang Seung-Ub—or Oh-Won, as he came to be known in order to place him with two other definitive Korean artists—was an orphaned commoner whose life was saved when he was a boy by a high-ranking official. The man recognized a prodigious talent in a drawing made by the boy to express his gratitude and encouraged him to pursue his art. Subsequently, Jang wandered about Korea, fornicating and drinking as he worked to replace the stolid realism of traditional painting with his own passionate subjectivity. Played with feral magnetism by veteran actor Choi Min-Sik, an Asian Gérard Depardieu, Jang is a man of appetites. You can see why half the courtesans in Korea line up for a roll in the hay with this unkempt creature, and why his work makes him the darling of peasants and black-hatted nobles alike.
Like the Chinese painters who first inspired him, Jang worked almost exclusively from nature. His paintings of trees, birds and mountains were (like Im Kwon-Taek's movies) lush, deceptively simple and classical, and possessed of a startling clarity. But he revolutionized the flat representation of the traditional Chinese paintings that inspired him—his cranes flew off the paper, his mountains and oceans humbled the viewer, his trees rustled with emotion. He painted from desire, and drink and sex helped him. We never see him painting while blind drunk (an astute insight—I've never believed Hemingway, or any of his imitators, wrote well on a bender), but when he has had a few drinks and a few whores or, better yet, when he has fallen in love (with a beautiful noblewoman who leaves him to escape persecution for her Catholic beliefs), he's a better, braver painter. Certainly he suffers—Jang lived in terrible times, when Korea was beleaguered from within by corruption in high places and a restive peasantry and from without by Chinese and Japanese invasions—but the source of his creativity is pleasure as well as pain. Chi-Hwa-Seon has all the stately dignity of a costume epic, but what drives the movie is a greedy, exuberant carnality that—for us, imprisoned in a film culture that's stranded between puritanism and sleaze—feels like a revelation. Im Kwon-Taek is not the first to observe that in the most formal societies, a space will open for robust sexual expression (we now know that the Victorians were a filthy lot on the side), but he's far from dewy-eyed about the pressures brought to bear on the artist. Jang Seung-Ub spent much of his adult life trying to avoid being beholden to politicians, nobles and kings—his only fruitful dependence was on his mentor, who urged him to answer to no one but himself. In the movie, both end up taking refuge with simple villagers, among whom Jang learns to make clay pots and—irrepressible to the last—paints pictures on them. In real life, he disappeared without a trace one day close to the turn of the century. Im Kwon-Taek gives Jang the ending he deserves. He dies as he has lived, perpetually ablaze.