“Without a drink and a woman, I can’t hold a brush,” insists the legendary Korean painter and de facto patriot Ohwon, a dipsomaniacal genius despite his humble origins. (I happen to have the same mantra when it comes to film reviewing.) In Chihwaseon, director Im Kwon-taek’s 98th film, Ohwon’s life and complicated times unfold in lush natural tableaux, deft brush strokes, and Lear-caliber shouting fits, a portrait of the artist as the last innocent man in tumultuous 19th-century Korea. (Four of Im’s 98 movies can be seen at the Asia Society on February 21 and 22.)
The unlettered, temperamental Ohwon (amazingly embodied by Choi Min-sik) becomes the acknowledged master of his craft, to the envy of more scholarly daubers; regarding words as superfluous (paintings traditionally included poems), he even eschews a signature, spawning a cottage industry of fakes. Devoted to art for art’s sake, he bristles at any co-option—by Korea’s China-kowtowing royals, by her Japanese-abetted reformers, even by those who would make him rich. (One winces as he destroys reams of what only he can discern as his lesser works.) Summoned to the king’s painting chamber to execute a piece for a powerful Chinese general, he balks: “I should paint for a foreigner who invades us?”
An instinctive national pride emerges, 1882 shading into 2003 brinkmanship; “Fire dictates all,” a pottery glazer tells Ohwon, musing on fate as they gaze into the hypnotic inferno of the kiln. Few would have guessed that nine months (Chihwaseon opened in Seoul in May 2002, and Im shared best-director laurels at Cannes last year with P.T. Anderson) would have made this film so additionally compelling, a refresher course on Korea’s long history of domination by outside forces. Beyond this frisson, the film succeeds as the rehumanizing of a near mythical figure.
Though its dramatic structure is looser than that of Im’s sublime, intricately narrated Chunhyang (2000), which retold a beloved folktale via the vertiginous voicings of a p’ansori performer, the director has found in Choi’s Ohwon a character equal in stature to his own cinematic conceits. If the soused hero’s behavior scans proto-Pollockian, his art could not be more different: an evocative economy that embeds “10,000 strokes in one.” The seamless blend with the eternal natural world is everywhere—birds peppering the sky, a thatched roof’s stillicide. His final work—a figure at the prow of a small boat—is heartbreaking, but no less so is his parting gift to a lover: a folding screen intended for immediate sale, showing neither the roots nor the top of a tree, just the branches in all their immediate glory, rendered as big as life.
Literally translating Chihwaseon from its Chinese characters gets you (or rather, my calligraphy-canny dad) the earthier “Drunken Painting Master.” Reader, are you ready for this segue? Set in the midst of the same time period, half a world away, Shanghai Knights is a dippier culture clash, featuring an erstwhile Drunken Master—i.e., Jackie Chan, who once played the young, wine-fortified folk hero Wong Fei-hong—and Owen Wilson as his sidekick, or vice versa, per the film’s running joke. The adventure-book pace and topsy-turvy English setting evoke the feel of Stephen Sommers’s Mummy films. True, Knights contains every last limey joke in the book (bad teeth, foul weather, and yes, spotted dick), not to mention any historical personality (e.g., Jack the Ripper) who might have conceivably walked the streets of 1887 London, but it’s a merry surfeit, lofted by calisthenic wow above the usual level for late-era Jackie and Wilson’s mellow-gold delivery. (He does look alarmingly like a face-lifted Rod Stewart.) The clock scene from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! gets the Big Ben treatment, and in a transporting sequence during a marketplace melee, Chan capitulates his influences and aesthetic, running changes on an umbrella—as dancing partner, as weapon: an homage to Singin’ in the Rain, and an oblique allusion to the brolly-wielding, Occident-savvy kung fu god Wong Fei-hong.