Chihwaseon

aka STROKES OF FIRE aka PAINTED FIRE (USA) aka DRUNK ON WOMEN AND POETRY (UK)
Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ho-jung, Ahn Sung-ki, Kim Yeo-jin, Son Yae-jin
Director: Im Kwon-taek

Jang Seung-up (aka Oh-won) is recognized as one of Korea’s greatest painters. He lived and worked during the country’s turbulent late Nineteenth century when the threat of insurrection and violent social reform were ever-present. As befits such times he himself was a troubled, unsettled individual, rarely happy in his work and often subsisting on a diet of alcohol and rancorous behaviour.

CHIHWASEON aka DRUNK ON WOMEN AND POETRY is a biopic tracing the life of Seung-up from his vagrant childhood through to the mystery of his disappearance shortly before the turn of the century. Although it draws equally from fact and popular myth to reconstruct Seung-up’s story CHIHWASEON is very much in the style of films about artists more familiar to Western audiences (i.e. LUST FOR LIFE, POLLOCK, FRIDA). The requisite ingredients that are fundamental to such films are present: the poverty, a misunderstood tortured soul, an enigmatic talent gone awry, the dichotomy of genius and self-loathing that co-exists in the artist. All of these characteristics are best typified in a scene where a bare-chested Seung-up charges out into the midst of a raging thunderstorm, his guttural screams in defiance of Mother Nature’s elemental chaos.

Seung-up lived an episodic, itinerant life and CHIHWASEON apes this with a rapid turnover of short scenes which are only occasionally delineated by a sense of a change in time and place. Initially this can be confusing, especially as actor Choi Min-sik is clearly much older than the twenty-something Seung-up that he portrays in some of the earlier scenes. However, once the powerful character of this independently minded protagonist begins to imprint itself on the film it develops into an interesting, if fitful, character study, underscored by some stunning cinematography. A film that may well tempt even the casual viewer to seek out more facts about both Seung-up’s life and Korea’s socio-political history.

4 out of 6 stars

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