In many ways, this bio-pic on Jang Seung-up, Korea’s great, if irascible painter of the late 1800s, follows a conventional route. There’s a big, bruising perf from Choi Min-sik, suffering for his art in the accepted ‘difficult genius’ manner; the easy mastery & remarkable skills in brushwork & memory right from his youth; then struggles with tradition-minded teachers; leading to a stubborn refusal to coast on his natural gifts, painting easy-to-sell copies or popular erotica. His goal was to find his own path; and it was done largely on his own since relations with women tended to begin at brothels and end abruptly, often violently. Sound familiar? Even the time frame brings Western types like Van Gogh & Gauguin to mind, though here, the financial difficulties are self-inflicted since Seung-up didn’t have to die to become fashionable, famous & collectable. Yet, the film never falls into cliché since helmer Kwon-taek Im knows how to separate his dramatic wheat from the chaff, avoiding or at least finessing most of the usual bio-pic embarrassments. Plus, there’s a fascinating social background in the tumultuous Korean history of the era, with a full blown Peasants’ revolt, horrible religious persecution, and a long-running battle between a tradition-minded Royalist Right (aided by China) and a more forward-looking progressive Left (aided by Japan). Even with its defects, this Cannes Fest winner (for Kwon-taek Im’s direction) deserved to find a bigger audience than its puny Stateside $60 thou gross would indicate. It also deserves a DVD that doesn’t suffer from the fluttering visual artifacts of frame ‘combing’ in its transfer.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Surely this is the only film poster for a non-pornographic pic that shows its leads flagrante indelecto as the main image. Yikes!