Shin Yun-bok painted with a lewd brush
"The Portrait of a Beauty (Miindo)," directed by Jeon Yun-su, starts off with a tricky warning: "Some of details in the movie are not based on historical facts."
This is misleading. The film's core assumption -- that a famous Joseon painter was in fact a woman disguised as a man -- is utterly, if not outrageously, fictional.
Shin Yun-bok, better known by his pen name Hyewon, is a real figure who produced a host of thematically provocative and artistically excellent paintings in the 18th century.
The possibility that he might have been a woman, according to existing historical documents, is not almost zero but absolutely zero.
But viewers should be aware of the second trick hidden up Jeon`s sleeve: explicit sexuality, sleekly packaged as a statement on the nature of art.
In one crucial scene, main characters debate the boundary between art and vulgarity. The conclusion foisted upon us by the director, who solidified his filmmaking career with "Le Grand Chef" last year, is that if you see obscenity in a picture where sexual innuendo abounds, it`s because your mind is muddled with dark, sinful thoughts.
Such simplistic justification is, after all, inevitable in a film that gratuitously indulges in nudity, trans-sexuality, homosexuality, and China's version of the Kama Sutra. Add to the already complicated mix the sexual tension between a teacher and his beautiful student, and the impact is disturbingly powerful.
Of course, the movie is not entirely about sex. Universal human emotions, notably obsessive jealousy, are juxtaposed along with Hyewon's gracefully satirical paintings, many of which poke fun at adulterous and sexually charged situations involving the pretentious upper class of the Joseon period.
The initial trigger comes from retired court painter Shin Han-pyong's desire to settle an old score with the then top-rated painter Kim Hong-do (played by Kim Young-ho).
Shin expects his son Yun-bok to emerge as a new star painter and then confront Kim, but the plan skids to a halt when Yun-bok commits suicide over his lack of talent.
Shin's twisted passion, however, does not end. He pushes his daughter Yun-jeong to disguise herself as her brother and enter the turbulent world of court painters. The grown-up Yun-jeong (played by Kim Min-sun), who is now known as Hyewon Shin Yun-bok, finally makes it to the court and learns to paint under the guidance of Kim Hong-do, a prominent painter who has the trust of King Jung-jo.
Kim Hong-do quickly notices Yun-bok's huge potential as well as his girlish features. Things remain normal until Yun-bok goes out and comes across a playful seller of mirrors, Gang-mu (Kim Nam-gil). When their romantic adventure takes off, it is Kim Hong-do who ends up heartbroken. Kim's jealousy, and his desire to own Yun-bok physically and emotionally, soars to a perilous level.
A love triangle is by no means a creative novelty. What's new is the boldness of the underlying attraction that bolsters the treacherous relationship: Yun-bok's trans-sexual appeal. Even in a man's clothes, she's beautiful thanks to her radiant boyish charms. Gang-mu seems to be struck chiefly by Yun-bok's feminine beauty but Kim's obsession about her is much more complex, because he lives in the same quarters of the court where Yun-bok pretends to be a man.
The movie throws in other explicit scenes, one of which is a closed-door demonstration of Chinese sex positions by two scantily clad female entertainers.
Actress Kim Min-sun has certainly created a new silver-screen image by taking a role that involves plenty of nudity. The film, to be released on Nov. 13, is expected to post better box-office numbers than other historical pieces, not least because of the huge publicity about explicit sex scenes. But a relentless mixture of sex and art does not necessarily make it appealing -- or even all that inspiring -- however creative director Jeon's interpretation about Hyewon's life may be.