19 March 2009 | janos451
The art of gender-neutral painting
A lavish royal court spectacle, a compelling drama of love, strife, and betrayal, the new Korean film "Portrait of a Beauty" has it all: history, art, romance, adventure. The San Francisco premiere is today (3/20) in the 4-Star Theater on Clement.
As most recent works from the burgeoning Korean film industry, "Portrait" is expertly directed (by Yun-su Jeon, also responsible for the screenplay), and beautifully photographed.
Taking place in the 18th century, the story begins in the family of famous court painters, where the young son is trained to take his place among the privileged royal artists - but he lacks talent.
His sister, at age 7, is already so accomplished that she paints for him secretly. When the subterfuge is discovered within the family, the boy commits suicide, and the girl is forced to take his name (Yoon-bok), and live as a man. Rather than telling the plot of the movie, the story described so far is just the very beginning, the basis for a lengthy, rich adventure to unfold.
The hero/heroine is played by the unassuming but outstanding actress Min-sun Kim. Her character, pretending to be a man, rises to fame and fortune (as we are treated to picturesque scenes of court and town life), and then creates a new school of painting, focusing on female beauty.
If you think the "establishment" of "Die Meistersinger" are upset about a bold, unconventional newcomer singer, you should see what the constellation of court painters does and, more, tries to do to Yoon-bok. Apparently, Korean artists in the 1700's were quite physical in their discussions of the finer points of brush strokes.
And yet, the artistic-aesthetic clash is just a small portion of the story. Yoon-bok falls in love with a charming outlaw (Nam-gil Kim, in a fabulously athletic performance), so there is the problem of the supposedly male painter letting her intended lover into her secret - but without being exposed to the rest of the world.
That exposure of gender complicates things a great deal when Yoon-bok's elderly teacher realizes that his student is a beautiful young woman when not disguised, and then - don't give up yet! - a royal courtesan falls in love with Yoon-bok, the man.
If this sounds like a potboiler, yes, it is that, but if you expect a predictable Hollywood soap knockoff - NO, it is not that at all. Writing, direction, acting combine to keep "Portrait of a Beauty" on the right side of the track, not giving in to easy and cheap solutions.
Apparently, aspects of the film are based on history, but my admiration for Korean films doesn't give me sufficient knowledge on the subject. True story or not, this film is real enough in creating a first-class movie experience.