A brush with greatness

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A brush with greatness

As an artist, Kim Seon-doo believed that good art reflects life and truth. But to paint for the movie "Chihwaseon," he had to look into the mirror every morning and tell himself that art was more about pretending.

Kim was the stand-in artist for the movie's star, Choi Min-shik, in "Chi-hwaseon," the Cannes award-winning film about the Joseon Dynasty's last great painter Jang Seung-eop. To play Jang, Kim was often asked by the director Im Kwon-taek to concentrate more on hand gestures -- brush strokes, than the actual work of art.

"At the beginning of the film I painted with all my heart," Kim says. "Then I got used to mimicking. I realized through shooting that everything you see in a film is a complete fraud, even art."

The difficulty of fitting Jang's vertical paintings, mostly landscapes, into a horizontal movie frame often forced Kim to sit at a 45-degree angle to show the camera his brush strokes.

The trickier part came, though, when the director ordered Kim to re-enact a certain situation. Not an easy request for a fine artist.

"I had to be in full control of my hands all the time and calculate precisely how they would appear on the screen," he says.

But viewers who recall the enraged Jang Seung-eop from the film -- beastly drunk while using the tip of his pipe to paint a jeering monkey oddly gazing at the viewer -- would agree that the director's demands were more than fulfilled.

"I think Kim had probably imagined his job for the film was to produce a few sketches and say a few words about Jang Seung-eop," says Im Kwon-taek. "By the end of the film, I think he had been truly challenged. I noticed that Kim's hair had fallen out."

An artist who specializes in traditional Korean paintings, Kim has participated in the Gwangju Biennale. He confesses he had to learn to kill his own artistic ego in order to stay faithful to Jang Seung-eop's style of painting. "Every time I held a brush on the set, my own stroke popped out on the paper." Kim's natural brush strokes are much more refined than Jang Seung-eop's original ink works, one of the reasons why Kim had to make conscious efforts to reproduce Jang's style on the screen. Jang's strokes are often characterized by art historians as bold. To most painters, the process would have been an intimidating one, but Kim found the experience energizing.

Back in the '80s, Kim was a radical follower of the "people's art" movement, traveling around the country and painting portraits of factory workers and circus acrobats. That nomadic history partly explains his attachment with the deceased painter, "a gypsy artist" as Jang is often described, who clung to prostitutes and alcohol. For that street lifestyle, Jang's works were long-excluded from scholarly discussions.

"Frankly speaking I was never a big fan of Jang Seung-eop," Kim says. "In fact I was one of those people who treated his work as a pure imitation of Chinese art." It was only after Kim joined the film crew that he saw Jang's works in a new light and grew convinced that the man was born with an undeniable gift. "Two hours aren't enough time to prove Jang's worth," Kim now says. "It's very unusual from a painter. His strokes carry both delicacy and fearlessness."

Perhaps Kim was lucky. Or perhaps his meeting with Jang Seung-eop was predestined from the beginning, as he repeatedly says.

Before getting involved in the film, he turned on the television while at home one day and saw the director Im talking about the eventful life of a genius painter in a seminar at Seoul National University. Im said that he was planning to make the artist's story into his next feature film. A week after the program ran on TV, Lee Jong-sang, the director of the Seoul National University Museum and Kim's mentor, contacted Kim and asked him to help create the paintings for the film.

"It was strange," Kim says. "I said to my wife after I saw the director talking on TV, 'Hey, I wouldn't mind a job like that.'"

Among the crew, Kim was regarded as a workaholic. Kim Jae-young, the still photographer on the "Chihwaseon" set, describes his colleague as enormously enthusiastic.

"When we were filming the final scene," Kim Jae-young says, "he volunteered to jump into a river to help out the movie's star. Back then, we were at Mount Jiri, and the water temperature was colder than you could imagine."

In February, when the crew of "Chi-hwaseon" was doing last-minute shooting in the the cold, Kim Seon-doo, wrapped in his winter coat with his brush and ink, repeated the same ink prop again and again.

Once, Kim was preparing a drawing of a homeless girl that the young Jang Seung-eop had met. The drawing, which was done on an old piece of cloth, was going to be thrown into the mud by a village hoodlum immediately after shooting began. Any artist could have hurried the soon-to-be-destroyed sketches and moved onto the next project.

But Kim met with the actress playing the homeless girl and asked her to pose in a number of ways -- sitting, turned, tilting, still, frowning, smiling -- before he finally gave the O.K. After staining his hands and fingernails with thick ink, Kim, ever the perfectionist, crumpled his sketches and whispered to himself, "It doesn't look like a drawing of a child."

His meticulous habits sometimes exhausted his two assistants, who helped Kim extensively in producing the paintings. "He never disagreed with what the director asked," Kim's assistant Kim Ki-joong says. "When the painting he produced didn't meet Im's expectations, he would repeat it until the director was satisfied."

Kim the stand-in is pleased that the aesthetics of Korean painting were introduced to world audiences for the first time through Cannes. He explains that the essence of Korean ink is dramatically different from that of other media. "It's the depth of the pigment and how it sits on the paper," he says. It's similar to the taste of a soup coming from a preserved radish that has been fermenting for years. But even apart from the medium, Kim is relieved that the life of Jang Seung-eop finally found a place in history.

"People say the man has vanished," Kim says. At 44, Kim is 10 years younger than Jang was when Jang disappeared in 1897. "I think he died on the street. He probably got really drunk one night and fell where nobody knew who he was."

by Park Soo-mee

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