By Joon Soh
Shin Yun-bok, the famed folk painter of the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), has received much attention in recent months. It all started last year when a best-selling novel described the male artist as secretly being a woman.
In truth, there is little historical documentation of Shin's life, and none that questions his gender. Nevertheless, the fictional work was popular and provocative enough that it was made into the successful television drama, "The Painter of Wind", as well a new feature film.
If "Painter of the Wind
" is a family-friendly version of the historical fiction, then the film, "Portrait of a Beauty
", is its steamy, adults-only twin. While the TV series stars the perpetually wholesome Moon Geun-young
in the lead role, the film features the sexy and feminine actress Kim Gyu-ri
Unlike Moon, Kim doesn't quite convince the audience that she is trying hard to pass herself off as a "he". However, this is not a problem in "Portrait", which is less interested in the issue of pretense and more interested in exploring Shin's repressed feminine side. Kim's Shin may be effeminate and awkward, but her sexual longing simmers just beneath the surface.
As the film makes clear, the real Shin did in fact often deal with erotic subject matter in his paintings. Along with vivid and often humorous depictions of daily life, Shin was also a keen observer of the lives of gisaeng, or female entertainers, and their relationship with the upper class. "Portrait" is at its best when drawing connections between Shin's art and his - excuse me, her - observed world. The film also shows the conflict between Shin's art and the moralizing attitudes of the Joseon royal court.
Ultimately, the film implies that the real reason for Shin's interest in the sensual world of gisaeng was not her wish to observe them, but rather to be one - or more precisely, to be a woman. Indeed, Shin's womanly desires become more blatant as the film progresses.
Confused and conflicted, the artist finds help exploring her sexuality in a poor but smoldering hunk from the lower class. To spice up the amorous tale, "Portrait" then proceeds to throw in generous portions of romantic drama cliches, including love triangles, secret trysts, tragic choices and - what else - naked body painting.
This is where "Portrait" begins to look uncomfortably like a half-baked erotic offering on late night cable television. That's fine if you're just looking for a little titillation, but if that's all this film was after, then there was probably no need to drag a historical figure like Shin into the whole gender-switching business in the first place.
In theaters. 108 minutes. 18 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.