Chihwaseon (취화선) – ★★★★☆

Chihwaseon (취화선)

Chihwaseon (취화선)

In 1882, the Joseon dynasty is coming to an end. As the country battles with foreign invaders seeking to colonise the region and as corrupt officials tear the country apart from within, Joseon stands on a knife edge. It is at this time that a wealthy Japanese dignitary requests a conference with renowned artist Jang Seung-ub (Choi Min-sik (최민식), one of the greatest painters of the era, in order to purchase his work. Yet when he enquires as to how a man of such humble origins can acquire such talent, Seung-ub merely laughs. The artist recounts his life as a young man in squalor during the mid-19th century, of being saved by kindly scholar Kim Byung-moon (Ahn Sung-gi (안성기), of the development of his skill followed by his strident desperation to go beyond the boundaries of art, of his ever growing addiction to alcohol and women. Through Seung-ub’s story, the history of a country in turmoil and the artistic fervour of the era are revealed.

Friendly scholar Kim Byung-moon notices Seung-ub's artistic skill and sets him on the path

Friendly scholar Kim Byung-moon notices Seung-ub’s artistic skill and sets him on the path

Chihwaseon – also known as Strokes of Fire, Painted Fire, or more colourfully as Drunk on Women and Poetry – is a lovingly crafted tribute to the beauty and philosophy of traditional Korean art by film maestro Im Kwon-taek, which also notably won the veteran filmmaker the Best Director Award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. The accolade is well-deserved as the drama is absolutely superb in capturing the turbulent spirit of the era through the story of real-life artist Jang Seung-ub. As historical records reveal little in regards to Jang Seung-ub’s life, director Im is free to apply his own brand of artistic license in depicting the great man and he skillfully uses the opportunity to examine Korean traditional artistry and the quest for perfection with palpable devotion. The methodologies and principles employed, the poetry infused within every stroke, even the manner in which such convictions stifled creativity, are all explored through the perspective of Seung-ub which, due to his status as a commoner, often results in affectionately poking fun at the artistic philosophies as much as revering them.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are captivating throughout Chihwaseon. The visuals wonderfully portray the abject squalor of the artist’s youth in the 1850s as he runs through muddy and poverty-stricken hanok villages, which contrast incredibly effectively with Seung-ub’s later years as he is exposed to the affluence of the middle classes as he serves various masters, before he himself becomes a wealthy man of renown. Such locations provide stunningly poetic backdrops for the journey Seung-ub undertakes as director Im explores the artist’s destructive quest for aesthetic perfection, as his tumultuous personality, as well as critical moments tied to historical circumstance, result in tragic irony in the creation of – and annihilation of – countless masterpieces.

Seung-ub is drunken womanising rogue at war with himself

Seung-ub is a drunken, womanising rogue at war with himself

Choi Min-sik utterly excels in portraying Seung-ub as a man at war with himself, desperately seeking to go beyond the limitations of his birth and his craft while drinking and womanising and causing conflict wherever he roams. Yet amazingly the actor never makes him a figure of ridicule but rather a loveable rogue, and certainly one of the most memorable characters in director Im’s filmography.

If there is criticism to be made of Chihwaseon, it comes in the form of the breakneck pace of the film’s early stages. The events that transpire move so quickly during the artist’s formative years that it halts the creation of an empathetic connection, which is of particular import given that his inspiration, motivation, and self-loathing all stem from the period. Following the opening, it’s an issue that the film struggles with throughout as the investment in Seung-ub’s journey ultimately becomes less compelling, yet it’s a testament to director Im’s prowess and Choi Min-sik’s charismatic performance that the drama continues to be engaging.

Seung-ub's quest for perfection results in the creation (and destruction) of notable masterpieces

Seung-ub’s quest for perfection results in the creation (and destruction) of notable masterpieces

Verdict:

Chihwaseon is a beautifully crafted tribute to traditional Korean artistry by virtuoso director Im Kwon-taek. Featuring stunning locations and mise-en-scene, the period drama is superb in capturing the tumultuous spirit of the era as well as the unbridled dedication to art and poetry, while Choi Min-sik is on top form as charismatic yet self-loathing artist Jang Seung-ub. Chihwaseon is a genuine testament to the creativity and grace of the past masters.

★★★★☆

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Revivre (화장) – ★★★★☆

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

As the vice-president of a leading cosmetics company, Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) is every bit the diligent leader, working hard to ensure the brand is a success. Yet when his wife (Kim Ho-jeong (김호정) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, Sang-moo dutifully divides his time between taking care of her and fulfilling his role at work, attending the company during the day and sleeping at the hospital at night. Tired and stressed from the routine, Sang-moo’s attentions are suddenly diverted when Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri (김규리), a young and beautiful new manager, joins the office. While Sang-moo strives to adhere to his responsibilities his mind begins to drift towards Eun-joo, creating a torrent of conflicting emotions that only seem to become more and more difficult to control.

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

As his 102nd film, Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. Rarely do films manage to capture such fraught emotional complexity as contained within Revivre, conveyed with a subtle, elegant grace that wonderfully displays director Im’s wisdom and prowess. Similarly, Ahn Seong-gi provides a towering performance as the emotionally conflicted VP, whose tempered, poignant portrayal is captivating throughout. In lesser hands Song Yoon-hee’s script would be a standard drama, yet through director Im and Ahn’s collaboration the story delicately unfolds in a classic, dignified fashion that only they, with their combined life and filmic experiences, could possibly accomplish.

Revivre is at once both an incredibly complex and wonderfully simple tale. The story of a middle-aged man whose gaze is diverted by a younger attractive woman is nothing new in cinema, yet the drama is infused with a startling array of poignant nuances that allude to the great psychological and emotional anxieties Sang-moo experiences. Moments that feature Sang-moo’s inability to urinate due to stress, and the emotionless manner in which he takes care of his sick wife, articulate a keen gravitas and so much more than dialogue could possibly hope to achieve. Director Im, celebrated for his reverential portrayal of Korean culture onscreen, further adds weight to the material by introducing such traditional features as traditional Buddhist funeral rites and saunas to make Revivre a truly Korean production that explores the issues from a truly Korean perspective.

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The relationship between Sang-moo and attractive new arrival Eun-joo is superbly paced and developed throughout the course of the film. The manner in which she is introduced into Sang-moo’s life, quite literally bursting into it, is a wonderful metaphor that sparks his interest in her and the possibility of a new life away from the stresses of his current one. Sang-moo’s affections for Eun-joo are captured with sincerity, from stolen glances at the office through to the palpable chemistry contained in their direct interactions. Much of the development occurs within Sang-moo’s imagination as he fantasizes about chance encounters that serve to add sweet romantic connotations to his infatuation, while scenes in which he behaves foolishly just in order to see Eun-joo are constructed with genuine care and affection. As Eun-joo, Kim Gyu-ri is perfectly cast. Her natural elegance and stunning beauty are entirely believable as distractions for Sang-moo, even as he desperately tries to be a good, dutiful man, while Kim’s performance as an independent career woman is also impressive.

While Revivre is a powerful emotional drama for much of the running time, the film begins to lose its way  as it attempts to come to a close. After featuring some incredibly powerful and nuanced scenes throughout the film as well as poignantly subtle character development, due to the quite ambiguous finale Revivre ends on a symbolic yet somewhat unsatisfying note. Director Im, however, wisely adds an epilogue of sorts to construct the end as coming full circle through traditional Korean Buddhist culture, conveying the inherent beauty in life, death and cultural forms as a means in which to appreciate the nature of existence.

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Verdict:

Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. His 102nd film, Revivre beautifully captures fraught emotional and psychological complexities with subtle elegance and grace, as a vice-president with a sick wife begins to fall for the charms of a new and quite beautiful manager. As the VP, Ahn Seung-gi provides his best performance in years and his collaboration with director Im produces a powerful film that only they, with their combined experiences, could have possibly achieved.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
Im Kwon-taek Retrospective Poster

BIFF 2013: Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master Im Kwon-taek

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

Director Im Kwon-taek (임권택) has long been recognised as one of the most significant contributors within the Korean film industry, helming 101 films since his career began in 1936. At this year’s 18th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), director Im is due to be honoured with a special hand-printing ceremony and a staggering retrospective that includes 71 of his films.

Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master Im Kwon-taek is a special program dedicated to the master director. In an unprecedented move and to accommodate so many films, the retrospective will begin on September 23rd – a full 10 days before BIFF officially begins.

Im Kwon-taek Retrospective Poster

Im Kwon-taek Retrospective Poster

The screenings are due to take place at the futuristic Busan Cinema Center, with the retrospective opening with 1981’s Mandala (만다라), often cited as director Im’s breakthrough film. From his early black and white work in the 1960s through to his more recent output in 2010 the celebration chronicles the director’s career, however as some films have either been lost or suffered decay unfortunately not all 101 films can be showcased.  The event will also feature a number of special guest visits from high profile filmmakers, actors and academics at selective showings. The retrospective is co-hosted by the Korean Film Archive, Busan International Film Festival, Dongseo University Im Kwon Taek Film Archive, and Busan Cinema Center. For the full listing of the program, please see the official Busan Cinema Center website here (Korean).

During the festival itself 9 of director Im’s films will be screened. Guest visits by film professionals including Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo Kim Tae-yong and more will also occur during BIFF. Please see below for a profile of each film.

Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master Im Kwon-taek

Chunhyang (춘향뎐)

Chunhyang (춘향뎐)

Chunhyang (춘향뎐) – (2000)

Based on the classic Korean tale (most recently made as erotic drama The Servant (방자전)), director Im infuses his version with traditional Korean pansori (folk performance). The story depicts lovers Chunhyang and Mongryong who are separated, yet when Chunhyang is tortured by a corrupt official, Mongryong comes back for revenge.

Come, Come, Come Upward (아제아제 바라아제)

Come, Come, Come Upward (아제아제 바라아제)

Come, Come, Come Upward (아제아제 바라아제) – (1989)

The different paths taken by two Buddhist nuns on their quest for enlightenment are the subject of this 1989 classic. While one nun seeks it through inner practices, the other searches amongst other people, with both enduring hardships on their journeys.

Fly High, Run Far (개벽)

Fly High, Run Far (개벽)

Fly High, Run Far (개벽) – (1991)

Set during the Joseon Dynasty in the mid-19th century, Fly High, Run Far depicts a land in turmoil as the new religion of Donghak is embraced by the people yet rejected by the aristocracy. Following the execution of Donghak’s founder a new leader emerges, yet he quickly discovers the hardships of his new position within the royal court.

The General’s Son (장군의 아들)

The General’s Son (장군의 아들)

The General’s Son (장군의 아들) – (1990)

A rare action film by director Im. The story  explores the ramifications of a fight between Korean theater worker Doo-han and a Japanese student during 1930s occupied Korea. When Doo-han becomes something of a national hero after his victory, consequences emerge.

Mismatched Nose (짝코)

Mismatched Nose (짝코)

Mismatched Nose (짝코) – (1980)

In this 1980 classic, director Im blurs the boundaries between societal notions of good and bad. When a former police officer finds himself in difficult times and is forced to become a tramp, he discovers a criminal he pursued is also in the same situation when they meet at a homeless shelter.

Seize the Precious Sword (삼국대협)

Seize the Precious Sword (삼국대협)

Seize the Precious Sword (삼국대협) – (1972)

The oldest film in the retrospective, the film depicts a swordsman who travels to Japan with his two warrior friends on a singular mission – to find and return a Korean national treasure.

Seopyeonje (서편제)

Seopyeonje (서편제)

Seopyeonje (서편제)(1993)

One of director Im’s most famous films, Seopyeonje employs traditional Korean pansori in his melodrama about a reunited brother and sister, and the tragedies that befall a Korean community. Set against a backdrop of beautiful landscapes the film is an enduring classic and was a huge box office success, even gaining an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival.

Ticket (티켓)

Ticket (티켓)

Ticket (티켓)(1986)

In this somewhat controversial film, director Im explores the lives of coffee girls who work in a seaside town. As well as coffee the women provide extra sexual services euphemistically called ‘a ticket.’ The shocking and occasionally brutal treatment the women endure exposes one of the darker areas of Korean society.

Village in the Mist (안개마을)

Village in the Mist (안개마을)

Village in the Mist (안개마을) – (1982)

Sexuality and desire are explored in director Im’s Village in the Mist. The film tells the story of Seoulite Soo-ock who travels to the countryside to teach at an elementary school. Yet she is shocked to discover a sexual connection between the local vagabond and the women in the village, even though all the men claim he is impotent.

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Pil-yong's interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기) – ★★★☆☆

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기)

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기)

Director Im Kwon-taek (임권택) continues his love affair with Korean culture in Hanji (달빛 길어올리기), a film about the traditional art of paper-making. While such a premise may initially make audiences baulk, the auteur’s love and admiration of the tradition shines through every scene, crafting a poetic narrative about a cultural trait on the brink of extinction.

Hanji tells the story of Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon (박중훈), a civil servant appointed to a committee charged with the restoration of the only surviving record of the Jeonju Annals. Knowing little of the practice, Pil-yong researches the art with diligence and becomes increasingly passionate about the project. His dedication is in part due to guilt as his actions caused his wife Hyo-kyeong (Ye Ji-won (예지원) to suffer a stroke three years prior, while he had also belittled her former occupation as a paper-maker and never understood the sorrow of her inability to find her hometown. Yet just the project begins, the government withdraws funding and the restoration is placed in jeopardy. Reluctantly teaming with documentary filmmaker Ji-won (Kang Soo-yeon (강수연), Pil-yong battles to save the hanji industry and restore the Jeonju Annuls while proving his worth as a husband.

Pil-yong's interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Pil-yong’s interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Hanji is very wisely positioned from Pil-yong’s perspective, a man ignorant of the history and cultural importance of the tradition which allows the audience to learn about the craft through his research and discussions with expert paper-makers on the practice. However this also leads the film to convey documentary-esque sensibilities, a feature of which director Im Kwon-taek is keenly aware and subverts through his ironic inclusion of a documentary team following the restoration project. While their addition does somewhat diffuse the educational dimension, Hanji often straddles the line between film and documentary and occasionally conveys a mild ‘preachy’ tone which is initially interesting, but becomes tiresome in the later stages. However it is Pil-yong’s desire to prove himself, discover his wife’s passion and locate her hometown that compels the narrative forward during such moments, as his responsibility for Ji-won’s illness – and desire to cure her – drives him deeper into the history of hanji, Jeonju, and Korea itself.

The heart of Hanji is the relationship between Pil-yong and Ji-won, which is allegorical of Korean history by reenacting the story of hanji through the trials of a failing marriage. As a descendant of the most famous hanji artist in Korea, Ji-won is hanji personified, while her husband symbolises an artist/author. When Pil-yong’s affair with another woman years prior is discovered, Ji-won suffers a stroke and becomes immobile and depressed, barely able to speak. This reflects the abandonment of hanji by artists, who opted to use paper less difficult to manufacture as it required less work and was more comfortable – a description Pil-yong applies to his infidelity. Yet through his journey, Pil-yong discovers that hanji – like his wife – may well require hard work but the quality of it lasts for at least a thousand years, and doesn’t deteriorate as with lesser equivalents. As a renowned professor describes, hanji is ‘honest’ paper as it reveals the skill of the artist whereas other paper conceals it, leaving a record of which that lasts beyond the grave. In fighting to restore the hanji industry and the Jeonju Annuls at great personal sacrifice, Pil-yong learns the value of identity, culture, history, and marriage.

Ji-won's search for her hometown is allegorical of searching for Korean identity and history

Ji-won’s search for her hometown is symbolic of searching for Korean identity and tradition

In terms of performance, Kang Soo-yeon shines as long-suffering Ji-won, conveying an incredible physical presence through her illness. Her depression and inability to communicate are also highly impressive, particularly her evolution as she struggles to gain greater strength. Park Joong-hoon is competent as Pil-yong, conveying his fascination with hanji and his frustration with the lack of support well. In fairness, there are few scenes that actually challenge the actor as Pil-yong is generally the focal point for Im Kwon-taek’s journey through the history of the craft. That said, the marital dispute and Ji-won’s illness notwithstanding, there is an absence of chemistry between the two central protagonists that is acutely apparent, and while Ji-won’s physical evolution is conveyed the same does not apply to their relationship which is devoid of affection. As such, Pil-yong’s obsession with the history of hanji and restoring his wife’s health is conveyed more as acknowledging his responsibility than reinforcing love between them.

Im Kwon-taek does attempt to rectify this through his masterfully poetic final scenes, in which he emphasizes the importance of Buddhist philosophy and nature, particularly the moon, as integral to the hanji crafting process. It is incredibly romantic as Korea itself is is conveyed as the missing piece of the production puzzle, one that when fully appreciated allows artists to create, the sick to heal, and estranged partners to reunite.

The secrets of hanji lies with Buddhist monks and nature

The secrets of hanji lie with Buddhist monks and nature

Verdict:

Hanji is a film based on a genuine love of Korean culture and tradition by auteur Im Kwon-taek. While at times the film can convey a rather educational, documentary tone the film emphasizes the importance of remembering and supporting cultural traditions as they are inherently tied to notions of identity. Hanji is poetic and philosophical, conveying that diligence and perseverance are highly rewarding experiences and serves as a love letter to a dying cultural tradition.

★★★☆☆

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