Chi-hwa-seon ("Painted Fire"), the latest cinematic extravaganza by South Korean auteur Im Kwon-taek, is a lusty and inspired portrait of Ohwon (or Jang Seung-ub), a revolutionary painter who sprang from humble roots to dominate 19th-century Korean art. Ohwon was rarely sober, and kept a series of mistresses around to fill his glass, yet his delicate and vivid renderings of fog-covered mountains, birds, and flowers seemed to surge effortlessly from some hidden creative source. Though summoned to work for the king, he remained aloof from the day's turbulent politics—a world of officials in luminous robes and broad-brimmed hats who contemplated art between massacres.
At 66, Im (who shared the directing prize for Chi-hwa-seon at Cannes last May) is probably the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some 98 features to his credit. Homegrown romantic comedies and ultra-gory action dramas may be packing Seoul's multiplexes, but this exquisite feature proves that Im is the grand master of Asia's fastest-rising cinema.