Chihwaseon (tainted Fire)

on September 10, 2002 by Kevin Courrier
It's probably fitting that veteran Korean director Im Kwon-taek, who shared the Best Director prize at Cannes last year, tackles the tempestuous life of Korea's most naturalistic 19th-century painter, Ohwon Jang Seung-up. Like Ohwon, Im Kwon-taek works on a large, sweeping canvas and is an implacable character. Despite political turmoil and the winds of fashion, Ohwon remained a man at the mercy of his sensual appetites and extreme mood swings. Im, a traditionalist in South Korean cinema, and making his 95th feature film, has also persevered despite the violent upheaval of his homeland and the ongoing challenges of the younger, more modern Korean directors.

"Chihwaseon" has something of the distilled passion of a veteran director wistfully looking back on life. The pacing may be languid and reflective, but the subject matter is anything but composed. Ohwon (Choi Min-sik) is a force of nature, who grew up in simple surroundings in a deeply moralistic Korea during the Chosun dynasty. While his paintings are serene representations of nature and portraitures, Ohwon himself is a boozing wildman who madly thumbs his nose at convention while following the whims of his own personal muse.

As Ohwon, Choi Min-sik gives the type of fire-in-the-belly performance that calls up some of Toshiro Mifune's great moments in "Rashomon" or "Yojimbo." Choi doesn't just play the role; he's consumed by it. He storms through the serenity of the picture the same way Ohwon rips through the drawings and paintings he creates. Sometimes you need age and experience to perfectly capture such an uncompromising artist without resorting to sentimentality or boasting. In "Chihwaseon," Im Kwon-taek looks chaos in the face and calmly laughs at it. Starring Choi Min-sik, Ahn Sung-ki and You Ho-jeong. Directed by Im Kwon-taek. Written by Kim Young-oak and Im Kwon-taek. Produced by Lee Tae-won. A Kino release. Drama. Korean-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 117 min

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