"What do rules have to do with my painting?" Jang asks rhetorically in one scene. He spent his childhood as an orphan beggar who loved to draw; a kindly mentor led him to art. In a life spanning the civil strife of late 19th-century Korea, Jang became renowned, but remained as scornful of praise as he seemed of his own talent. His career involved learning how to live in spite of, in defiance of, rules maintained by a rigid society that was slowly crumbling.
Frequently in Chi-Hwa-Seon ("painted fire"), Im shows Jang (played by Choi Min-sik) creating or presenting his art in a roomful of kneeling men. They are richly robed, dressed in tall-crowned hats, while he is bareheaded and scruffy. In refusing to appease the patrons on whose money he relies, and in his constant attraction to wine, women and the open road, Jang comes across as a surprisingly modern figure, a hobo artist driven by his work. "To paint you need desire," he notes at a moment when he's absent willing female company. "How can I paint without an erection?"
Im is Korea's most prominent filmmaker -- he's made Chunhyang and nearly 100 other features in a 35-year career -- and his Chi-Hwa-Seon has phenomenal visual beauty, from the gossamer precision of Jang's own artwork to camera moves including a quick pan across a painting of ducks that seems to bring them flapping to life.
Yet Im never sugarcoats Jang: As convincingly played by Choi, the artist is an enthusiastic but wholly inconstant lover, prone to both drunken rages and enervating soul-crises over his artwork.
In one scene, a gathering of patrons sits in a forest clearing wreathed in brilliant autumn foliage, red, orange and green. But Im keeps us close to his impulsive, contrary hero. Unhappy with a new painting everyone else loves, Jang shreds it into a deep pool, then leaps in after. In the next shot he's sitting with his back to the camera and a young friend is asking him, "Did you really want to die? They said you refused to let go of the rock." Jang doesn't answer. He shakes his wooden flute dry and the scene ends.
The film's episodic structure mirrors such a life, even as it challenges you to remember faces shown in different contexts several scenes earlier. Likewise, viewers might tire of repeated reminders that Jang's paintings were the only thing giving people hope during the violent death throes of the centuries-old Chosun Dynasty.
Jang vanished from history in 1897, and Chi-Hwa-Seon ends with poetic speculation about his fate. Like a great painting, the film commands your attention but leaves you with unanswered questions, tantalizing to ponder. In Korean, with subtitles.