Chihwaseon (2002)
Directed by Kwon-taek Im

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Synopsis & Analysis
Kwon-taek Im's Chihwaseon, which relates the life of the Nineteenth Century painter Jang Seung-ub (Min-sik Choi), who is better known as Ohwon, is a captivating, gorgeously filmed, and often touching movie.

The director's portrayal of his protagonist is generally well done. Im reveals Ohwon's difficult childhood, his youthful uncertainty, his overpowering love of wine and women, and his stubborn irascibleness. By exposing such things, as well as how various members of the nobility look down upon Ohwon who, whatever his talents, is still an uneducated commoner, how the painter himself destroys several of his works in fits of anger or pique, and how he treats a young woman with whom he lives atrociously, the director allows his protagonist to emerge as a profoundly flawed and genuinely fascinating individual.

What is more, Im does not merely skim across Ohwon's life, showing certain especially telling events. He has instead crafted a tale that just happens to span the days of a man's existence from his youth to his old age. The viewer, having been shown the harshness of Ohwon's youth, his struggles to establish himself as a painter, and the accomplishments and largely self created difficulties of his maturity, is immersed in that man's passionate if often troubled world. The film, consequently, has that delicious, maddening emotional intensity to which a love of beauty often gives rise.

The director's delineation of the society in which Ohwon lives is, fortunately, as entrancing as is his characterization of the artist. He carefully brings out the social inequities troubling Nineteenth Century Korea, the unrest and the suffering of the poor, as well as the arrogance and corruption of the elites. His depictions are not, however, crudely simplistic. Im also allows the viewer to participate in many of the nobles' love of art, so that he feels the delights so many such refined persons take in beautiful things, and to lose himself in the rough, difficult, but exciting society of courtesans and painters in which Ohwon lives his life.

Finally, I must add that the movie is consistently skillfully filmed. There is, in fact, hardly a moment of Chihwaseon that is not beautiful simply to look at. The various sequences in which Im presents some natural object or another are, however, especially lovely. The story of the artist's life is thus punctuated by presentations of flowers, fields, forests, or even icicles, all of which are likely to so bewitch the moviegoer that he loses himself in his experience of the gorgeousness of the physical universe around him.

Chihwaseon really is an affecting and lovely film. It may never rise to greatness, but it is still a pleasure to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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