Film depicts Joseon era with tea and sympathy

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Film depicts Joseon era with tea and sympathy

The objective of art is usually to reveal something about the essence of life. Be it painting, music or traditional tea ceremonies, artists typically fight a lonely fight to get to that source. That is why artists are glad when they meet a kindred spirit on the same journey of artistic revelation they provide support to each other. The director Im Kwon-taek's new film, "Chihwaseon" (Immortal Flame), which opens on local screens May 10, is precisely about this path. Some of the most important experts on and artists of traditional Korean culture have collaborated in the making of this film, which is about the erratic life of Jang Seung-eop, a famous painter from the late Joseon period. Mr. Im's goal is to portray the quintessence of Korean cultural heritage through the movie.

Some 50 experts have come together to participate in the production, from fields such as Korean classical painting, calligraphy, music, etiquette, framing, national costumery and history. Among them are Professor Kim Seon-du from Choongang University, Son Beom-ju from the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts and Kim Bok-il from the Myeong-won Cultural Foundation. They offered their expertise in painting, music and decorum for the movie.

Kim Seon-du, 44, taught painting techniques to the actor Choi Min-shik, who will play Jang Seung-eop. Mr. Kim painted the 70-odd pictures used in the movie, and acted as Choi's double in certain scenes. Mr. Son, 40, taught the oboe-like instrument the saenghwang to Yoo Ho-jeong, who plays a courtesan whom the painter is in love with. Kim Bok-il, 53, was the consultant for the traditional tea ceremonies in the film, and taught tea etiquette to the actors Yoo Ho-jeong, Kim Yeo-jin and Son Yae-jin.

The movie depicts the tumultous life and artistic spirit of the painter Jang Seung-eop during the politically unstable Joseon period. In contrast to the cheap sentiments that characterize most modern films, the experts think the sophisticated nature of this film will spark awareness about Korea's rich cultural heritage.

The three experts are gathered at Samgcheonggak, the arts center near the Blue House, musing about the cultured life their forefathers led. Kim Seon-du: "I believe they enjoyed a truly refined artistic life. They painted, they played various instruments, they drank tea with elegance; I felt this when I was watching the filming and I can see that the correspondence among the literature, music and art circles was frequent and natural. That is what 'Chihwaseon' is attempting to re-create on film."

Kim Bok-il agrees: "'Immortal Flame' is the accumulation of our cultural heritage; for example, all scholars of the era had to learn the tea ceremony. The depths of culture and arts were explored during the simple act of drinking and appreciating tea. And Jang Seung-eop did not rely just on alcohol to create his paintings he also drank tea. In this light, we see that culture is born from the harmony of yin and yang."

Mr. Son lamented the public's ignorance of Korea's cultural history. "The saenghwang is an instrument dating back 1,700 years; but many people degrade it, saying it is of Chinese origin. It is Korea's only harmonic traditional instrument. Jang Seung-eop was also a skilled danso (short bamboo flute) player, which goes well with the saenghwang."

The three know that times are changing and that movies have a profound effect on those changes. That's why they became actively involved in "Immortal Flame."

But each has his own distinct agenda. Mr. Son said that the movie serves as a chance to rewrite the history of the saenghwang: "I plan to publish a book on the saenghwang as soon as the movie is out." Kim Seon-du wanted to hone his painting skills: "It was an excellent studio for me to work." Kim Bok-il wants Koreans to strike a better balance between heritage and greed: "The time has come to focus on our traditions. We've been concentrating on economic development, but we need to adapt our cultural history to modern terms."

The director said he was indebted to these experts, calling them "cultural champions."

Mr. Son said, "Unless we exchange ideas and deliver traditional culture content to the public, like what's being done in this film, our heritage has not future."

by Park Jeong-ho

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