Painted Fire follows Ohwon from presumptuous student to "bumpkin dauber" to the nation's most honored artist. Instead of the highlights-only approach of most biopics, Painted Fire tries to touch on every blip in Ohwon's background. Audiences unschooled in Korean art may find it hard to keep up with the whirlwind changes in his life, or figure out what makes his paintings of trees and cranes so much better than any other.
But neither the film nor Choi Min-sik take a genteel approach to painting. The actor vividly makes the aging painter increasingly obstinate, prone to roar at thunderstorms or drunkenly straddle rooftops. Though he gets caught up in Korea's turbulent history, Ohwon has an apolitical rebelliousness, disdaining authority figures of any stripe. The film also candidly depicts Ohwon's sex life and the erotica industry of the time, sharply contrasting with the more puritanical period pieces we tend to get from China and Japan.
Director Kwon-taek Im (who has more than 90 films to his credit) tied for Best Director with Paul Thomas Anderson at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. He gives the film some self-consciously "painterly" images, as Ohwon wanders across scenery that resembles the artist's work.
Painted Fire's sound and attention to ambient noise makes the strongest impression. In the first scenes, the filmmaker's microphones pick up every whooshing brushstroke and slurping sip when the painter takes a drink, hinting that art and alcohol will be persistent themes. The director displays Ohwon's work without lingering languidly on it, and if Painted Fire can feel to rushed, at least it's not like watching paint dry.
The Peachtree Film Society screens Painted Fire Tues., June 17, 7:30 p.m. at Lefont Garden Hills Cinema, 2835 Peachtree Road. $7.50, $6.50 for PFS members. 404-266-2850. www.peachtreefilm.org.