Keep It Strange

Jang Seung-up is an egoist. He is humble too; with those who share his sensibility. Not so our modern commentators. Unwilling to do the necessary work they condemn what they do not understand. Ignorance and laziness. What a lovely couple! Together they conceive an unfortunate little beast; there he is now: screaming and crying, and demanding… Concise summaries! Obvious symbols!

Tourists in a foreign country - a Welshman in Korea - our critics want simple, universally recognisable signs to indicate the public facilities. Everywhere must be for their convenience. If not? Come on, I’m getting desperate. Come on. TELL ME where they are! Come on. Come on! Don’t you have a brain in there… Look. It’s English. It’s the universal language. What? What!? You nitwit. Idiot!

There are obvious flaws in the narrative structure: certain characters – most notably the different women with whom Jang becomes entangled – enter his life in disconcertingly abrupt fashion. Im introduces various sub-plots – for instance, the anti-Catholic persecution and peasants’ revolt – without elaborating the effect they had on the society as a whole. The stated parallels between Im’s struggles as a filmmaker and Jang’s as an artist are also likely to be lost on western audiences, for whom both Im and Jang are little-known figures.  (Geoffrey Macnab, BFI Notes.  My emphasis)

Drunk on Women and Poetry is not a linear chronicle of an artist’s life. It begins at the apex of his fame; during a painting ceremony that dramatises the conflict between his genius and the ritualised forms and habituated prejudices of his aristocratic patrons. The meaning is obvious and immediate. If we want art to be life’s twin… We put the director in his boudoir; seat him in front of a mirror; and surround him with the pots, powders and the brushes of his profession. We make him comfortable. We do some massage. Tell a few jokes. Make fun of that Englishman in the lobby. When he stops laughing, we watch him curling his eye-lashes, glossing his lips, and applying layers of fine glaze to his cheeks; to his chin; to his whole face. The maquillage complete we dress him in a kimono; its white chrysanthemums exploding like fireworks into a black night.

The theme illustrated; the film pauses; and Ohwon (for it is he) recounts his earlier life to a Japanese admirer. This story told, we return to the present to witness Ohwon’s artistic growth, and the country's rapid decline. The chronological joints are neatly camouflaged.

The cinematic structure forces us to accept Ohwon’s authority from the beginning. The struggles of his early life highlighting this artist’s immense strength, which overcomes the extreme social injustice of Korean society.

There is something else about the structure. It suggests the peculiar nature of artistic talent. There is a continuity in Ohwon’s character that outweighs its growth and development. The film cleverly circumventing the problem of a linear narrative that tends to foreground progression and change. This man has always been a genius. Or, as he himself puts it, one brush stroke equals a thousand brush strokes; a thousands strokes are the same as one. Juggling up the time-frame gives substance to this thought.

There is a monumental quality about Ohwon’s character that both transcends and resists the local environment. An artist is born young; the source of a perennial freshness that is forever responsive to what it finds interesting. Such a personality is formed early. It is a mould that is quickly set.1 The result is a hard, impermeable quality to the artist’s mind that protects it from the platitudes of its place and time; keeping it fresh and fluid inside. We imagine a spring in a mountain fastness.2 But there are risks in such obduracy: by continually resisting his surroundings the source of inspiration may run dry.

Born young, the artist is always old. Here is another risk: he mustn’t grow too old too soon. Im Kwon-taek knows this. It is why Ohwon has to vanish. To capture the essence of this man he must not decline into decrepitude.

Throughout the film there is a fragile balance between order and social chaos; the opening scene a pivot on which the action turns; traditional order giving way to anarchy; Ohwon acquiring creative liberty through living the lonely life.

Ohwon makes the right choices. But then he is an artist. For the politicians it is not so easy. Committed to liberal reforms - believed the best way to protect Korea - they use the wrong means - the Japanese - to bring them about. What is good for art may not be right for the society. Although, for sure, a criticism is implied: the reformers, unlike Ohwon, have lost touch with tradition.

Should Im Kwon-taek elaborate all this? Definitely not!3 A cultured European should be able to intuit at least the outlines of this history; common to most of the non-Western world.4

Facts. They are the bright headlights of an oncoming car. Dazzled, we swerve and drive into a ditch...

Ohwon is detached from his society. Politics hardly touches him. That said, not even a genius can insulate himself entirely from a revolution. Thus, when the collapse occurs he becomes a target for the peasants’ rebellion, and some of his work is destroyed.

Outside the political class - a class that seems to live permanently on the edge of the apocalypse5 - great historical events are for the most part experienced as either distant or unexpected catastrophes.6 We miss the slower but more profound workings of cultural change; which taking decades rather than months, gradually transforms the living practices and the received wisdom of entire populations.7 Such transformation can be especially slow in a conservative society that has developed strong defences against historical change. Once it starts, however, such changes can be extremely quick; reform mutating suddenly into revolution.8

Their headlights dipped; we safely pass the oncoming car...

For sure there is much that is confusing in this film. This is to be expected. The artist’s mind doesn't have a simple and clear order. It jumbles things up. It makes weird associations. It is excited by what is odd and contingent. It tailgates an obsession.9 There is no obvious pattern to the way an artist thinks and acts. His behaviour can lack common sense; it can be inconsistent; be alarmingly unstable. Order seems to exist only on the canvas; but even then it must interpreted with sympathy.

Ohwon is a man of spontaneous action. Long-term relationships, with their ritualised banalities, do not attract him. The settled life is a trap. Always he must be on the move; physically and emotionally. Ohwon needs women; they act as discrete and intense moments of pleasure - a love affair both an event and a work of artifice - which stimulate his aesthetic soul. But he cannot stay too long with a woman. The fixed relationship - with a wife and a family - is too limiting, too inelastic, for this man attuned to the fluidity in art.10

The plot’s structure, which may occasionally trouble us with its waywardness, is a wonderful vehicle for taking us around such a personality; with its lush pastures and dangerous ravines. How we enjoy ourselves! Enjoying ourselves in a wood suddenly - help! help! - we are falling… We land on a rock ledge, and look hopelessly around - it is a gorge. We cry out. We cry and cry; the intervals getting ever longer. Some hours later a young woman appears; she stares at us through a broken veil of ferns. She stands there silent and immobile. What do we do? Then, all of a sudden, she is undressing… Oh, thank god!  We clutch the kimono, and clamber up its exquisite cloth. Macnab is right: there are many women; they inexplicably appear and disappear, and often we cannot tell them apart. They are symbols and concrete facts. And nearly all are prostitutes. A chaotic life produces confusion, which is everywhere the same.

…[a] moving study of a man who conforms surprisingly closely to western archetypes of the artist as rebel and hedonist.

We are puzzled by this critic’s puzzlement, which implies that artists in Korea are radically different from our own. Sheila Johnston is sensible:

Convention dictated that an artist be either a middle-class court employee churning out official commissions or a scholarly gentleman-painter with a private income. Ohwon, by contrast, was a rough street beggar whose raw talent was encouraged by a series of visionary mentors. (BFI Notes)

We are reminded of another ancien régime: Britain before 1956. Although since then the social relations of art have not changed. Thus our museums and galleries, despite the plethora of egalitarian talk, still reverberate with the accents of the upper classes. This is inevitable. It is necessary.

Macnab is confusing a collective culture with individual human beings. The artist is a problem in all societies; while his friends are nearly always aristocrats. Only the clothes are different. This shouldn't concern us. These we can easily remove...

(Review: Drunk on Women and Poetry; Chihwaseon)

 1.  See my comments on precocity in One Smile was Enough, It was an Earthquake. These are continued in my Strange Dreams.

2.   And we remember the mountainous grotto in the first letter of George Sand’s Lettres d’un Voyageur. The letter itself captures the independent nature of the artist; a quality both marvellous and absurd. 

4.  We could look elsewhere in Europe. A fair knowledge of the Russian classics will help us understand fin de siècle Korea.

5.  Acutely conveyed in A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe; 1848-1918. An historical masterpiece that at the same time evokes the texture of modern political life.

What is this political life? A succession of almost daily crises, that are nonetheless nearly always resolved successfully. The dominance of a few very simple ideas, that change only when some major crisis destroys the prevailing wisdom - France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870, for example. Such a crisis caused, ultimately, by the slow and largely hidden workings of industrial and cultural life; although by themselves these economic and social causes will not produce a major historical event; thus Taylor’s concentration on the little incidents that trigger a war or revolution.

6.  Marvellously evoked in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs. A wonderful metaphor is the storm scene on the island immediately after Anna disappears in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

7.  Rightly or wrongly, he had set out to show that in the decades after the revolution of 1688, the progress in society, and particularly the multiplication of offices at home and overseas, had increased the opportunities for corruption and greatly enlarged the harm that might be done by an unscrupulous king. It is by such reference to the processes which are taking place in time, or by such a reduction of parts of the narrative to general processes, that the chronicle is carried to a higher level and the material of the narrative is churned into history. At this stage in historical thinking one is most reminded of the way in which the natural scientist tries to bring his results to a higher level of generalisation. Before his analytical work is completed, the historian, who began by noting movements in the landscape - commotions only on the surface of the countryside - may find he is embarked on a geological examination of the scene. Where in the first place he had recorded only superficial motions taking place above ground, he may end by referring a great part of these to a subsidence occurring far below. (Herbert Butterfield, George III and the Historians)

8.  See the first volume of Alfred Cobhan’s History of Modern France. 

In a revolution the previously slow development of new concepts and new customs is speeded up. Now explicit, and alive with dynamic force, they are consciously directed to transforming the political and ideological institutions; which, under this assault, collapse quite easily. 

For Cobhan the French Revolution is the end of an epoch. 1789 didn't create the ideas of Natural Law; Liberty; and Equality (between the different estates); they had existed for over a century and were fulfilled during the 1790s.

Cobhan is bemused by the socially conservative outcome of the revolution. He shouldn't be. All revolutions are reactionary. Their origins - the original rebellion - usually an aristocratic resistance against reform from above. After some initial success the upper classes then lose control, and there is anarchy and rapid transformation - rebellion is turned into revolution. It cannot last. Soon there will be a counter-revolution. This creates a new elite - from a different constellation of social forces - that will be more radical and fanatic - because more fearful - than that of the ancien régime. To maintain stability… This is now everyone’s desire. The new society more conservative than the old.

Chateaubriand has given possibly the best summary of the revolutionary cycle.

The Revolution made me understand the possibility of living in such conditions. Moments of crisis produce a reduplication of life in men. In a society which is dissolving and reforming, the struggle of two geniuses, the clash between past and future, and the mixture of old customs and new form a transitory amalgam which does not leave a moment for boredom. Passions and characters, set at liberty, display themselves with an energy which they do not possess in the well-regulated state. The breaches of the laws, the emancipation from duties, customs, and proprieties, and even the dangers of everyday life all add to the interest of this disorder. The human race perambulates the streets in holiday mood, having got rid of its schoolmasters and returned for a moment to a state of nature, and does not begin to feel the need for social restraint again until it bears the yoke of the new tyrants engendered by licence. (Memoirs)

9.  We enter In Search of Lost Time and lose ourselves inside an artist’s mind.

10.  Acutely captured in The Real Thing, by Henry James.