Given recent releases in Britain, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Asian cinema was entirely about the present day and various shades of hipness. Most current Asian imports tend to be lurid genre variations of one sort or another - Thai horror, Korean action, the blood-curdling comic-book nuttiness of Japan's Takashi Miike... What seems to have subsided is the wave - seemingly unstoppable a decade ago - of those lush period dramas that Kurosawa once specialised in, before the baton was taken up by Chinese mainland directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
Anyone nostalgic for that genre should enjoy Chihwaseon (Drunk on Women and Poetry), by veteran Korean director Im Kwon-taek. This is an old-fashioned film in most senses, a Great Man biopic in the grand style, recounting the life of the 19th-century painter Jang Seung-up, played by Choi Min-shik. But as the subtitle suggests, it's also a fairly raucous number, a Korean Lust For Life. I have no idea whether booziness and an anarchic temperament are as integral to Korean myths of artistic behaviour as they are to Western ones. But Im's big theme is the extreme contrast between the delicate insights of Jang's work and his belching, mercurial, often violent character.
The film follows Jang's career from a hyper-talented street boy through his success as a wayward grand master, to an imagined version of the painter's mysterious death - here presented as an act of self-destruction so extreme that Van Gogh's ear-slicing seems genteel whimsy by comparison. Jang's life is one long romantic agony, complete with uproarious fits of pique. He's constantly asked to recreate his greatest hits - "Repetition is death," he scowls, and rips up another handful of his latest work.
There's a wonderful moment when Jang produces a self-portrait, albeit only from his unconscious. One drunken night, he wakes up, starts painting with his fingers, and produces a picture of a furious ape brandishing a bottle; the next morning, of course, he has no memory of it. Jang's self-destructive career has a spoilt rock-star waywardness; for some reason, Fassbinder comes to mind, but that may be partly to do with Jang's hirsute, messy chubbiness. Jang has a habit of reducing his own best work to shreds, has long lay-offs where he refuses to work at all, and complains he can't function without an erection. There are plenty of willing partners among the ranks of Korea's courtesans to help sustain his inspiration. One scene has him and his lady-love humping in a field while discussing his work; in another, he has to literally be dragged off his mistress by militia who are there to arrest him, resulting in a startling come shot (that old semen-ink analogy, it never fails).
The film could have been decorous and reverent; what makes it the opposite, apart from Jang's Falstaffian personality, is its fragmentation, with the narrative jumping years apparently at random as Jang's career zigzags between glory and abjection and his mistresses come and go with scant explanation. This all adds to a picture of an artist at once in history and detached from it, and a sense of the flux of 19th-century Korean history - the niceties of which, you should be warned, are often confusing and sketched out only briefly in the subtitles.
Im doesn't always let us inside his subject's psyche: the point is that we see him in action, and watch him drift through his fraught world like a lost soul. Seeing Korean culture and landscape through Jang's eyes makes Chihwaseon, at the very least, an extremely handsome film, not just for the period design and the often desolate nature shots, but also for the close-ups of Jang painting in thick black brushstrokes on white paper: what starts off looking like hungover Rolf Harris will suddenly blossom into Jackson Pollock density. And when it comes to portraying artists with sore heads, Chihwaseon beats Ed Harris's Pollock biopic hands down.
Meanwhile, from Thailand, comes Mon-Rak Transistor, a sweet comedy with a faintly cruel streak. Just how cruel can be seen from the opening shot, a close-up of a laxative bottle, its contents used in the background (out of focus, fortunately) to extract a necklace from the stomach of the film's hero Pan (Suppakorn Kitsuwan). A grinning jailer turns to camera to explain how this hapless character ended up in such dire straits, and we jump back to see Pan as he was - a handsome amateur singer strutting his cheeky stuff at a country carnival where goats and chickens mingle on the dancefloor.
After this opening, which sets Pan up as a born star, it's hard to believe in him as the hopeless naif scurrying down the primrose-and-neon path to perdition. Mon-Rak Transistor is pure picaresque, an Asian Tom Jones or Candide, and finally a touch predictable. It does, however, have a likeable self-reflexive approach, a blithely inconsistent attitude to having characters burst into song, and some memorably broad characters - notably, a sleazy impresario with a gravity-defying pompadour, whose very own Fame Academy turns out to be half boot camp, half bordello.
Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang makes much play on juxtaposing Thai and Western, rural and urban elements, mixing bucolic tradition with anachronistic hipsterism - Pan gives his true love Sadaw a Sixties transistor radio but in a Moschino carrier bag. There's a nice in-joke when Sadaw's smoothie seducer woos her with his live voice-over to a film: it's the recent, hyper-camp Thai Western Tears of the Black Tiger. The film's playful charm wears thin after a while; still, these misadventures in Thailand's Tin Pan Alley could serve as a cautionary tale for our own potential Pop Stars.Reuse content