Mar 19, 2003 at 12:00 am

South Korean director Im Kwon-Taek has made nearly a hundred films during the past 40 years, but for many American viewers he qualifies as a new discovery. His last film, Chunhyang, was a picturesque fairy tale narrated by a pansori singer, whose soulfully gruff vocal style greatly enhanced what could have been just a good-looking but rather turgid story. His new one, Chihwaseon, is the biography of a 19th century Korean painter saved from respectful staidness by the fact that its central character is such an anarchistic mess.

Jang Seung-Ub, aka Ohwon (Choi min-Sik), is the painter who rises from humble obscurity to national prominence by dint of a natural ability to immediately grasp the fine points of his country’s Chinese-influenced art, coupled with a desire to transform it into a more personal form of expression. Despite the exotic-to-Westerners setting, Ohwon is a familiar type, the outsider artist, a misfit whose extraordinary sensitivity in one area is yoked to a terrible coarseness in all others.

His moody combination of narcissism and feelings of social inferiority, both exacerbated by drinking copious amounts of sake, and his ill-treatment of his fellow beings (especially his young assistant and his main kisaeng, or courtesan) make Ohwon come across as one ornery son of a bitch. He has his moments of despair, but he remains unsympathetic. One never gets the impression that he imbibes so heavily in order to quell a trembling soul, but rather that he’s a thuggish savant who, were it not for his gift, would spend his days getting tossed out of local watering holes for bad behavior.

Ohwon’s story is told against a backdrop of national turmoil that’s alluded to but not elaborated on. And though it’s chronological, there are big gaps in the narrative that, while giving the impression that this is a familiar story for a Korean audience, still seem ill-judged.

But it’s a beautiful-looking film, thanks to Kwon-Taek’s longtime cinematographer Jeong Il-Sung, and the matching of the nature shots with Ohwon’s nearly abstract paintings proffers some insight into his reputation. Kwon-Taek doesn’t flinch at the prospect of depicting Ohwan’s loathsomeness but he does allow us to see the painter’s awesome vision whose source, to the end, remains a mystery.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].