PORTRAIT OF A BEAUTY (Jeon Yun-su, 2008)

A young child, prohibited from royal court painting because she is a girl in the eighteenth century, substitutes her accomplished work for her brother’s inept work to protect him; but his disastrous showing at an official performance, which drives him to commit suicide, requires that she “become” him to save the family honor. Spurred by her guilt-inducing father, she persists in this impossible deception even with the advent of puberty.

This ridiculous narrative springboard launches, from South Korea, Jeon Yun-su’s sweeping, tragic romantic melodrama Mi-in-do, based on Kee Jung-myeong’s fictional account (with the gender-switch fabrication) of erotic folk painter Shin Yoon-bok (a.k.a. Hwawon), Baramui Hwawon. Under her assumed identity of Yoon-bok, Yun-jeong attracts various sexual attentions, including those of two men who come to know her actual identity: a young thief, whose passionate love she reciprocates, and her mentor. Meanwhile, her own experiences shift the focus of her traditional art to a scandalous emphasis on the female body and female beauty.

I never believed Yoon-jeong’s supposedly convincing routine of “wrapping” down her breasts; but what is a man who is really a woman supposed to do? This voluptuous film engrosses and entrances, and fairly well bleeds dry the wayward heart. It is also dreamily photographed in gorgeous, silken colors, especially at dusk and at night. The cinematographer, whose work I have adjudged to be the best of 2008, is Park Hee-Joo.

Saturated with romantic anguish and exceptional cruelty, the film may not be to everyone’s taste, especially since the gender masquerade is devoid of Shakespearean wit; but it is all so beautiful to the eye, and hauntingly melancholy, that others will find it impossible to resist. I fought liking it as best I could but, mesmerized, gave in to my feminine side and (I think) loved it. Perhaps I should find some other way of expressing this.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB INLONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.

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