Chihwaseon (Painted Fire) (2002)




Director:     Kwon-taek Im. 

Starring:     Min-sik Choi (Jang Seung-up), Sung-kee Ahn (Kim Byung-Moon), Ho-jeong Yu (Mae-hyang), Yeo-jin Kim (Jin-jong), Ye-jin Son (So-woon), Jin-seo Yun.

famed Korean painter paints while Japan and China fight over Korea


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Famed Korean painter Ohman Jang Seung-ub paints a landscape while many noblemen watch. 

1882.  Chosin Dynasty is ending.  The Koreans are rebelling against foreign invasions and corrupt government.  The country is in decline.  These are also the days of the artist Jang Seugn-ub. 

Mr. Kaivra is Japanese and writes for the Hansung Daily.  He wants to own one of Ohman's paintings and has come to Korea to get it.  Ohman asks him:  "Do you want a painting from a vulgar Korean to go to the glorious empire of Japan?"  His translator refuses to translate the rude comment into Japanese.  Mr. Kivra asks him since he was not a nobleman, how did he come to paint so well. 

Flashback.   Seung-ub is a beggar boy trying to escape from a violent man.  The man catches him and starts beating him.  A nobleman named Master Kim tells the man to stop beating the child and the abusive man leaves.  Seung-ub has a drawing with him that impresses the nobleman. 

Quite a few years later, Master Kim of Hyoja village runs into Seung-ub again.  The young lad says that once by the Chungye River he saved a beggar boy.  With a letter of recommendation from Master Kim Seung-ub gets assistance from an art teacher.  Three years later the teacher dies.  Now Seung-ub has to work as a servant.  He sees the pretty youngest sister of Master Lee known as So-woon.  She is in frail health with an unknown disease.  In secret at night Seung-ub goes through a Chinese art book.  The other servants see the young artist as being an idler and give him a good beating.  Seung-ub watches as the master's youngest sister marries. 

The master wants to know from Seung-ub how he was able to copy a piece of art work from his private Chinese art book.  Seung-ub admits that he looked at the book in secret just once and then reproduced the painting.  The master is amazed at how he could almost perfectly reproduce the Chinese painting with just one look.  Seung-ub later paints all the paintings he saw in the book.  This makes him locally well-known. 

Seung-ub meets Oh Cheon-suk, an art dealer who has heard of the young painter.  He has a woman with a young girl child take care of the artist.  Later Seung-ub is taken to the Footbridge Art School under Master Hyesan.  There he meets other talented young artists: Mongam, Doncho and Songhyun.  Seung-ub impresses Master Hyesan when he quickly finishes a painting entitled Homecoming.   The master is so impressed that he gives the commission to paint a fan intended to impress a Chinese guest to Seung-ub.  The young man does such a great job that the Chinese recipient of the fan sends him a gift. 

The lovely Mae-hyang is brought in to play a Korean musical instrument along with Seung-ub.  The young artist takes a liking to the woman. 

1866.  Regent Daewon orders the persecution of the Catholics. 

Nine French missionaries and 8,000 Koreans are beheaded.  Seung-ub sees some of the heads hanging from tripods.  He then wanders around for awhile.  Master Lee wants to see Seung-ub urgently.  So-woon has returned.  She came back so that her serious illness would not be a burden on her husband.  Now the master's youngest sister wants Seung-ub to do a painting for her.  He paints a crane standing under a tree.

The art dealer suggests that Seung-ub try to create his own art style.  He also asks the artist if he is still angry?  Seung-ub has a very serious problem with his at times violent temper.  This is made worse by his abuse of alcohol.  One night Seung-ub becomes extremely drunk.  The woman with whom he lives (along with a young boy) gets very angry at him.  (She is a kisaeng, which is something like a poor-man's Geisha.)  She is angry about his being upset about her sleeping with other men.  She asks him:  "What's wrong if a kisaeng sleeps with other men?  I don't live with you just for sex."  She shouts at him: What have you ever done for us? 

Seung-ub decides to leave for awhile.  The kid follows him.  The artist tries to drive the boy away, but he just keeps following him.  He wanders around doing some paintings.  In a rainstorm he stomps around screaming and shouting.  The boy finally leaves the artist saying that it is just too hard to keep up with him. 

After awhile, Seung-ub returns to the house.  He buys a fancy chest by a famous artisan, takes it home and destroys it.  Drunk again, he shouts "Come out you bitch!"   He is again upset by her sleeping with other men. She tells him that Peyon-San has asked her to leave the artist and come live with him.  He slaps her and calls her "whore"  He adds:  "I'm through with you."  But she asks him to do a painting for her before he leaves.  He does so and then leaves.  She quickly sells the painting.  The painting is his greatest work yet and Seung-ub becomes even more well-known by word of mouth.

Master Hyesan sends for Seung-ub.  They will both paint part of a painting in honor of the Governor's birthday.  The theme is "Pine and Crane."    At the actual painting, Seung-ub is asked to paint first.  Seung-ub says that Master Hyesan should go first, but they insist.  So the younger artist starts on the painting.  And he starts more in the middle which leaves less room for Master Hyesan. 

Seung-ub soon learns that he has violated the rules of decorum.  When he tries to visit Master Hyesan the pupils of the school inform him that the master has resigned from the school.  One student says:  "People who don't respect rank are worse than animals.  You disgraced your master!"  The students demand that he leave, but he refuses to go.  The master, however, refuses to see him.  But Seung-ub just stays kneeling at the school.  Finally, the master opens a window and tells the younger man:  "You don't need my forgiveness."

Seung-ub connects again with Mae-hyang.  She had just suddenly disappeared from his life.  She explained that as a Catholic it was dangerous for her to stay in Seoul and so she left.  Seung-ub tells here that he has received many orders for paintings.  He then asks her if she has a lover.  The two end up having sex.  He asks her if they could live together, but she says that if she is caught, as a kisaeng, she will be killed. 

The art dealer again tells Seung-ub that he needs to create his own style of painting.  The young boy that traveled with him for awhile comes back to see him.  Seung-ub tells him that he has quit painting.  He tries to paint again but gets very frustrated.  The room in which he tries to paint gets filled with ripped up artist paper, but he does manage to paint Hawk in Full Vigor.   The painting is so good that with the money from its sale he could buy a very good house.  But he gives the painting to the young boy. 

Back to the present.   The Japanese writer wants a painting of the hawk owned by the young boy.  Seung-ub will not reproduce the painting, but will do a painting for the Japanese man.  Seung-ub is now the master of the painting school. 

Seung-ub runs into some new kisaengs, these from the Spring Branch Lounge.  He is very taken with one of them. 

Seung-ub gets into trouble for standing while Minister Min's procession went by.  For not bowing he is hit very hard with a pole and ends up having to stay in bed for awhile.  He hears from others that the woman he liked at the Spring Branch Lounge wants him to do a painting for her for a twelve-panel screen.  He does the painting.  Later he meets with her.  She is only eighteen years of age and comes from a peasant family.  She is a little rude to him, he gets angry and walks out on her. 

1882.  Seoul.   The big politician, Kim Ok-kyun, scourge of the Conservatives, congratulates Seung-ub on the success of his paintings.  He comments that the painter is the people's only comfort in these times.  Later he gets angry at the criticism that he paints fantasy and avoids realism. 

Seung-ub is summoned to the Royal Painting Office.  There he sees a huge mural being painted.  He is given the sixth rank which no painter from outside the office has ever held before.  But the atmosphere in the office does not please him.  He says that he needs drink and a woman.  He is supposed to be painting a painting for the Chinese General Yuan Shi-Kai's birthday celebration coming up soon.  Seung-ub leaves the office even though it is not allowed.  He hangs out in a local bar and reminisces with some of the patrons.  There he is grabbed by government men and taken back to the office, King's orders. 

The king is moving his residence to Kyungwoo Palace.  With the aid of the Japanese, the Reformists have seized power and executed the top Conservatives.  Seung-ub uses the opportunity to sneak out again. 

1884.  The Reformist Revolution.  The Reform Party attempts a coup with the aid of the Japanese.  The coup is foiled by the intervention of the Chinese army.  Many Reformists are killed while others go into exile. 

Seung-ub breaks into a house marked with "No entry" signs because the owner is accused of high treason.  There he does some painting.  He later hooks up with Mae-hyang again and they have sex.  She tells him that she wants to have his baby and he says "thank you".  Government forces break in and pull the two lovers apart forcefully.  They want to know where the Governor of Gobu is hiding.  They are just about to beat the information out of Seung-ub when another man tells the government forces that this is the famous painter Ohman. They let him go.

1894.  The Peasants' Revolt. 

Seung-ub comes across his former arts master working in the mud flats.  He falls to his knees before his masters.  Both men are glad to see each other.

With the Japanese in power, the Reformists gain fresh impetus.  The rumor spreads that rebellious peasants were massacred at Ugeumchi.  Many said that this gave the foreigners an excuse to enter Korea. 

Seung-ub is back to roaming again, but this time he is noticeably coughing and has the appearance of being sick.  As he walks across a large field Japanese troops fire at and chase a rebel leader who they catch.  Apparently the rebel was sold out by his trusted aide.  Night is falling on the Chosun dynasty. 

Mae-hyang and Seung-ub hook up again.  She tells him that the fact that the Catholics are being less persecuted allowed her to return to Seoul where she has opened her own "house of joy".  She gives him the quilted coat she made him.  In her place, the artist sees some big pottery vases.  He decides to make pottery and paint the outsides.  He volunteers at a kiln in exchange for food.

One night, dejected, Seung-ub crawls inside the kiln. 

1897.  The great painter Ohman vanished without a trace.  Legend says that he went up Diamond Mountain and became an immortal hermit. 

Good movie.  It was interesting following the life of the turbulent Korean painter Ohman.  Along the way current events are woven in with the tale of the artist.  It helps to know something about Korean history to more fully enjoy the movie.  Ohman was very quixotic.  He would roam around, never settled down with a woman, never started a family, constantly lost his temper, was often dejected and frustrated, had a very difficult time of developing his own painting style, and was often too critical of his own paintings.  He tended to devalue them and virtually give them away.  He probably never was really happy and content. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)