Traditional movies about artists follow a fairly well-defined path: The artist is a tortured outsider, irascible, often unlikeable, but redeems himself through his work. An exceptional movie about an artist, though, will find another level of insight. To wit: Amadeus started with Mozart as a genius (and a self-destructive one at that, to complete the formula nicely), and then added the jealousy of his colleague Salieri as the context. Leave off the insight and what you have is a lockstep classroom biopic.
Chihwaseon (or Strokes of Fire, as it was translated for showings in the West) features Choi Min-sik as the tempestuous 19th century Korean painter Seung-up Jang, and if it has a failing it's in that it never gives us anything beyond the competent basics. It's a lovely but essentially superficial movie which only seems to stumble across the truth of its subject by accident. It isn't a bad movie, and it's so technically well-done (especially in terms of how it shows us the artist at work) that it almost feels bad to withhold praise.
What does come through (and which lends some depth to the story) is the political and social upheavals in Korea that give Jang's life a badly-needed context. Both China and Japan were feuding over Korea, the former by attempting to invade and the latter by helping foment insurrections against the corrupt aristocracy, and Jang wanted (where possible) to stand apart from them and create something uniquely Korean. This is not a phenomenon many Western audiences are likely to be familiar with, and to its credit the movie gives it some dimension.
The film follows a familiar template: it starts late in Jang's life, then flashes back through his years to give us various highlights. He was, as we learn, orphaned at a young age, spent time with various masters, and became an immensely shy young man who nevertheless had an astounding capacity for copying paintings after having seen them only once. This was a fairly important skill at the time, since much of the art scene consisted of lockstep copying of Chinese paintings rather than the c reation of anything genuinely domestic. Later in his life, of course, Jang becomes famous and respected — so much so that he is spared by insurrectionists, who also consider him a national treasure.
If the movie knows about anything, it is painting, and the very first shot of the film has Jang turning what looks like a shapeless mess of ink into the side of a mountain. In one of the best scenes, he gets roaring drunk, slathers his fingers with ink, and paints a monkey that's so vital and crude that it scares him: he's convinced one of his lover's former dalliances snuck in and painted the damn thing. He copies the masters, but adds his own touches that show his insight and wit. Like Ed Harris in Pollock, the movie convinces us that Choi is Jang by showing him enthralled in his work.
This is, frankly, less of a testament to the script or the director (the near-legendary Kwon-taek Im, responsible for over a hundred movies) than it is to the power of Min-shik Choi as an actor. He gives us convincing versions of Jang from early adulthood all the way through to old age — so convincing, in fact, that it's a distraction from the rest of the movie. The performance is the best reason to see the film, and comes close to redeeming a script that seems to miss its own point. Even more surprising is that what works best are not the big emotional moments (like the cliched scenes where he gets drunk and rants and raves in public), but the little ones, as when he can't take his eyes off a certain stone because it's just so smooth and dark, “like ink.”
What's ironic is that the most revealing isolated moments in Jang's life work better than what the movie gives us as the bigger trends, as when Jang's furies are aroused by sex and rejection. At one point Jang buys a chest of drawers for his girlfriend, only to discover her in bed with another man when they deliver it. Without blinking, he grabs up a hatchet and smashes the chest to pieces. In the same way, he shreds dozens of his own paintings when he's not convinced of their quality — but breaks into the house of an arrested colleague to finish applying a few strategic dots of color to another painting. He even declares one of his own lesser paintings a forgery, so that the others can become all the more valuable — not monetarily, but aesthetically, in his own eyes.
Choi is a fascinating actor, strongly reminiscent of a Korean version of smoldering American icons like Harvey Keitel. His best quality is that he isn't simply a one-note heavy; later in the film, when he is withered and gray, he projects great sensitivity and intelligence instead of just brute swinishness. In a movie where a lot of things feel hurried or abbreviated, the one thing that comes across the best is the man's personal evolution. Choi's presence accomplishes that when so much else in the film doesn't.
It's not as if there 's nothing else to see, though. The film is never less than gorgeous. There are many moments where the camera simply stops to see what he sees: flocks of birds, vast belittling landscapes, moments of amazing beauty. But the larger sweep of the film never really comes together; even the bigger themes, like national identity, seem abortively treated. (Maybe that's because the film assumes knowledge on our part of these things, but it's hard to say.) Perhaps the problem lies with the editing as well as the writing: the film seems to be hastening to cover so much material at once, so many incidents and moments, that even at two hours it slips right through our fingers. This is one of the few times where economy in storytelling seems to have backfired.