Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan


(Painted Fire, Korea, 2002)

As far as I can remember, this is the only Korean film I’ve ever seen. I am profoundly ignorant of Korean history, culture, and art. (It seems they wore a great variety of funny hats.) This is the story of Jang Seung-ub, a peasant who lived in the last half of the 19th Century and is acknowledged to be the greatest Korean artist ever. He took the name of Ohwon and revolutionized the whole field. And I again have to admit that, if shown one of his paintings I probably couldn’t tell you even if it was Korean, Japanese, or Chinese. Many of them seem to be a blend of Japanese and Chinese, as indeed does Korean culture itself. Small wonder, as that unfortunate peninsula has been fought over by both counties many times in the past. Ohwon’s time was turbulent, but we see this only in glimpses. In fact, the whole film is glimpses, of the beauty of nature and the countryside, of the creation of wonderfully simply art with a few brush strokes, interspersed with a few actual conventional dramatic scenes. I gradually realized this was deliberate. The director was sketching the artist’s life in brush strokes of film. His life was turbulent, passionate, and eternally unsatisfied, but that’s not the focus. The art comes alive as we watch him slash at the paper with his brushes, see the forms emerging. All in all, one of the most effective films about the creation of art that I’ve ever seen.