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Ed Harris directed a biographical movie of Jackson Pollock a couple years ago. If Pollock had been Korean and lived sixty years earlier, Harris’ movie would have looked a lot like Chi-Hwa-Seon (Painted Fire).

Artists are Artistst

Choi Min-sik channels Toshiro Mifune and Jackson Pollock
Choi Min-sik channels Toshiro Mifune and Jackson Pollock

Abstract Expressionism may be a world away from Korean ink-on-paper of the late 19th century, but artists are artists the world over. Like Pollock, Jang Seung-ub (Choi Min-sik) is an alcoholic painter. He is a great technician, a master at copying, but he struggles to find his own vision, and he finds that in order to do so, he must break the rules of art.

Seung-ub lived and worked at a time when Japan and China were engaged in political tug-of-war over Korea. At that time, Korean art was formally the same as Chinese art, so when Seung-ub broke the rules, he became a symbol for Korean independence. He was a uniquely Korean artist at a time when Korea was in danger of losing its identity.

The Rules of Art

Chi-Hwa-Seon was not made for Western audiences, and it doesn’t explain the artistic rules Seung-ub breaks. You may or may not like the paintings in the film. They look very Chinese; mostly ink on rolled paper, often very tall or very wide, and always depicting nature. But unless you know your Korean and Chinese art history, it’s difficult to appreciate Seung-ub’s effect. Chi-Hwa-Seon was made with a Korean audience in mind, and outside of that audience, it will have more limited appeal. I understand that Seung-ub was a groundbreaking artist, but I don’t really understand why, nor do I care much.

Chi-Hwa-Seon also suffers from a style of storytelling that is very hard to do well. Director/co-writer Im Kwon-Taek tries to capture an entire life in a two-hour movie. It’s so densely packed that no time and place gets much screen time. Whole eras of Korean history (The Peasants’ Revolt) consist of one or two shots. It’s nearly impossible to make a movie with this kind of scope well. Im does fairly well, but he doesn’t overcome the restrictions of the format.

Toshiro Mifune

But Chi-Hwa-Seon is salvaged by two factors. First, the acting is very good. Choi seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune from Sanjuro. He gives Seung-ub a commanding physical presence; a gruff, confident exterior; and a genuine talent and interest in his art. He has human frailties, but he is larger than life. Second, the film looks great. In between segments, there are wonderful shots of Korea in the fall and winter. There are broad, wide landscapes, bursting with inspiration for any painter who cares to look.

See Chi-Hwa-Seon if you loved Pollock or any other movie about the life of a painter. But if it sounds a little too obscure for your tastes, it probably is.