Telling Stories

by The New Republic | March 10, 2003

Korea is unfolding slowly for us--the South Korean film world, that is. For decades Koreans have been making films, around forty or fifty features a year, but few have been shown here other than at festivals or museums. I saw my first Korean film, Shiri, only in March of last year. I was surprised by its slickness, which was pure American spy-thriller slickness, a blatant imitation. Now arrives Chihwaseon (Painted Fire) (Kino), which could hardly be more exotic. It deals with a famous Korean artist of the nineteenth century who lived and worked in the midst of his country's political heavings. The picture is fraught with Korean culture for anyone (like me) ignorant of that culture; but, symmetrically ungrateful, I missed some of the Shiri trimness. The director was Im Kwon-Taek, who is a veteran. Born in 1936, he has been working in films since he was twenty and, in his country, is called the grand old man of his profession. This new film is said to be his ninety-fifth, and every detail of its execution shows his easy command--we feel that he couldn't direct clumsily. Im builds every scene, however short, with a plan of its structure; he handles his actors with that combination of control and evocation that marks the good director; he always focuses on the elements that we want most to see. With cinematography that is well up to current international high standards, Im makes us familiars of a world that is seductively beautiful yet socially strange. The homes and gardens invite us to be there; yet there is strangeness. Prostitutes are domestic companions, not mere hirelings. Equally strange, government officials are passionate about painting. The screenplay, which Im wrote with a collaborator, tells the story of a painter called Ohwon. Im admits that few facts of Ohwon's life are known: the character outlines were there, and the story was largely induced from them. It begins in Seoul in 1882, with Ohwon's appearance before a high official. Questions arise about his background and training, and, flashing back, the film proceeds to answer them. The young Ohwon, a bit of a roughneck, is introduced to painting by masters, proceeds fast and furiously to fame, yet remains a roughneck. All through his life he drinks a lot, he womanizes, and he paints. (At one point he asks, "How can I paint without an erection?" I remembered the alleged remark of Pierre Renoir: "I paint with my penis.") High-level patronage is soon forthcoming, but Ohwon remains "difficult." He becomes what Westerners think of as the typical wild-man artist--Jackson Pollock, for instance. In fact, this behavior is a link of recognition between his story and us. But the screenplay moves from episode to episode without much cumulation, only addition. Also, Im includes elements of Korean history--domestic riots, struggles with China and Japan--that obviously affected Ohwon's life but seem random jottings included here just because they could not be omitted. Through the curious narrative structure and the excursions into politics, we gradually suppose that we are being told a story by a Korean bard in the Korean manner, generically different from ours. (The exact opposite of Shiri.) A binding strength of the film is the performance of Choi Min-Sik as Ohwon: far from any fake-Barrymore antics, he makes us feel that we are intruding on the heat and genius of a man for whom life--existence as is possible in the world--is insufficient. Peculiarly enough, a new American film has something of the same "Korean" approach to narrative. In All the Real Girls (Sony Pictures Classics), scene after scene arrives not at whiz-bang tempo but as if the director just had something more that he needed to tell us and that we would want to know. The difference between this film and Im's is that with the Korean picture we feel nativity--"this is the way they do it"; with the American film, we sense a conscious impulse to vary the usual. The writer-director was David Gordon Green, now twenty-seven, and this is his second film. His first, George Washington, was about a modern pre- adolescent boy who is given that nickname by a girl, a story that gamboled nicely in small-town lyricism. His new film is also set in a small town--in North Carolina--and deals with people further along toward deeper joys and troubles, people in their late teens and early twenties. The very first moment of All the Real Girls promises well. That first shot fades in. It's a quick fade-in, but the very use of it is so exceptional that it sparks our interest in what is to come. A director who begins in that heterodox way, we feel, is stating quietly that he means to take a fresh look at his subject. Which he does. This is especially striking because the subject could hardly be less novel-- the flowering and burdens of love. Paul is a good-looking young man who doesn't do much besides hanging out with his male friends and scoring with young women. His only relatively steady occupation is dressing in clown garb and accompanying his mother, similarly dressed, who earns a living by entertaining children in a nearby hospital. A local eighteen-year-old girl, Noel, comes back to town after six years at boarding school. She, we soon learn, is a virgin. She and Paul very soon fall in love. Paul, oddly enough, takes a sort of pride in loving a virgin. Yet part of the film's quiddity is that she sleeps with another man and thus, she says, learns how much she loves Paul. But the details of the story, and the sure-handed sketches of Paul's friends, are not the basic theme of the film. Apart from Noel's virginity--well, not entirely apart--Green is showing us through all his people that ideas and perplexities that we might have thought of as urban are now fixed everywhere. Concerns, doubts, evasions that we connect chiefly with mixed-up city types, the people of The Last Days of Disco and Igby Goes Down, are now national. If we have still been stuck in the pattern of malaise in city life and clarity in small-town life, we can forget it, says Green. It was never true outside of conventional fiction, and that fiction, though it lasted much longer than we might have thought, is now defunct. Green treats his people with affectionate knowledge, untinged with patronizing. And he sees them in ways that are free of cinematic clich. Simple moments, like an angular embrace in the lane of a bowling alley or an overhead shot of a man and a boy lying next to each other on a lawn as they contemplate the sky, are modest but warm pleasures. Zooey Deschanel has the needed gentleness as Noel. Paul Schneider has a good deal of the young Warren Beatty quality, the small-town rooster who is really not so pleased with himself. Patricia Clarkson, as his mother, rings true.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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