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Chihwaseon, co-winner (along with Paul Thomas Andersonís superior Punch-Drunk Love) of the prize for best director at this yearís Cannes Film Festival, is a rather conventional artistís biopic thatís occasionally blessed with an astute sense of physical movement and natural spectacle. The film opens with a pre-title sequence that shows a close-up of a brush as it paints a large black spot on a blank canvas. After the painting is done, the camera zooms into the black space, and the film begins properly. The implication here seems to be that director Im Kwon-taek is helping us better understand the filmís subject (late 19th century Korean painter Jang Seung-up) by taking us inside the paintings that he made. Itís a fine conceit, and the visual expression of the filmís intended journey makes you hopeful about things, but the ultimate treatment is a bit too superficial to feel truly satisfying.
It doesnít help much that Chihwaseon feels compelled to touch upon the many events in the artistís life, yet still come in under two hours long. We watch him grow from destitute and abused child, to clueless bumpkin student, to drunken lout, to respected artist, to wizened sage, as the film moves on, but we rarely come to understand whatís led to any of those stages. The average length of each scene is probably under a minute long, and while that keeps things from ever feeling at all boring and ensures a procession of attractive and varying scenery moves across the screen, it is also a bit exhausting by the time over a hundred of them have flitted by. Itís as if the movie never moves out of the expositional phase along its journey and as a result we never feel as if weíre spending time with the protagonist. Too much incident sinks the film, especially when the characters are preaching about the need to slow down and be more observant on a regular basis. The moments where we get to see the artist at work are fascinating, and I wish there were more of them, or at least longer ones, similar to Rivetteís La Belle Noiseuse.
As a chronicle of part of a nationís history, however, Chihwaseon is more effective. Even though it fails to give adequate insight into the psyche of its protagonist, it does an excellent job of conveying Koreaís political status at the time and his place in that shifting environment. Sandwiched between the powerhouses of China and Japan, it consistently shifts hands throughout the film, and any uprising that arises from within is quickly claimed by one of the sides as its own. National identity in such circumstances is hard to come by, and our understanding of Jang Seung-upís importance to his homeland as a distinctly Korean artist is deepened as a result of the backdrop. Oftentimes throughout the first half of the film, the artistís mentor explains the necessity to have no unnecessary strokes when creating a masterpiece. Frankly, I felt Chihwaseon could stand to have a few of them. Itís so tightly edited that it sometimes feels impatient and forced. Several scenes feel downright obligatory. As technically proficient as most of the individual scenes in the film are though, they donít cohere into anything satisfying since thereís so little breathing room.
* * 1/2