“Portrait of a Beauty” sees “Le Grand Chef” director Jeon Yun Soo offering a fascinating take on the life of Shin Yun Bok, one of the greatest ever Korean artists, based upon the supposition that the painter was actually a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to chase her dreams in the male dominated Confucian society of the Joseon Dynasty. Although the film draws its premise from the same best-selling novel by Lee Jung Myung that inspired the 2008 television drama series “Painter in the Wind”, which featured Moon Geun Young in the lead role, here Jeon ups the stakes somewhat by adding an erotic charge to the proceedings.
The film begins as a young girl called Shin Yun Jung from a family with a long tradition of painting inadvertently drives her brother to suicide after her works are assumed to be his. Growing to womanhood (played by actress Kim Min Sun, recently in “Rainbow Eyes”) she takes on her brother’s name Shin Yun Bok and wins a place in the Royal Painting Institute, training to be a court painter under the tutelage of master painter Kim Hong Do (Kim Young Ho, “Night and Day”). Unfortunately, she finds herself unable to restrict her painting to the confines of traditional morality, and stirs up trouble with her naturalistic depictions of sex and naked female forms. At the same time, her own sexuality begins to blossom, and she falls for street hustler Kang Moo (Kim Nam Gil, also in “No Regret” and “Public Enemy Returns”), crossing the class lines and causing much gender confusion.
Controversy aside, the idea at the heart of “Portrait of a Beauty” is an interesting one, as beyond the immediate narrative and historical drama it allows director Jeon to explore wider issues of morality and hypocrisy still relevant today. To an extent Confucianism is a relatively easy target when it comes to themes of repression, though here they are balanced with the protagonist’s own personal journey and search for identity, and the film is driven by its characters rather than any simple demonising of the past. Kim Min Sun is excellent in the lead role, turning in a brave, complex performance that goes a long way to externalising the character’s inner turmoil and conflicted desires for her art and heart.
Jeon also explores the artistic aspects of the tale, paying a great deal of attention to Shin Yun Bok’s painting methods and techniques as well as the final results, and this helps to give the proceedings an air of authenticity, if perhaps in spirit rather than fact. Although obviously this will likely make the film of particular interest to viewers with even a passing interest in classical Asian art, it remains largely focused on the human aspects of the tale, and never gets lost in the details.
Inevitably, it is the film’s sexual content which has attracted most of the attention, and with good reason, as it is a very frank and graphic affair. There is a great deal of skin on show, predominantly female, with a number of long sex scenes of various types and persuasions. However, Jeon manages to keep things tasteful and relevant to the plot, and never allows the film to degenerate into cheap titillation. Indeed, most of the scenes of sex or nudity are directly related to Shin Yun Bok’s artistic and personal awakening, and as such take on an air of wonder and self-discovery. Away from the sex, Jeon’s direction is artistically inclined without being too stylised throughout, and although the plot does meander somewhat, the visuals help to keep the viewer engaged. Some of the imagery is really quite beautiful in places, as he attempts to show the world through the painter’s eyes, with fields of flowers, misty mountains and waterfalls all finding their way from the screen to her canvas in poetic fashion.
Although the sex and gender swapping play important roles, it is this aspect which really infuses “Portrait of a Beauty” with fascinating life and makes it one of the more interesting Korean historical dramas of recent years. Anchored by an excellent lead performance by Kim Min Sun in the lead role that gives the film its emotional core, it transcends the inevitable controversy by offering something with impressive depth and artistic spirit.
Jeon Yoon-soo (director) / Han Soo-ryeon (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Min-seon, Kim Yeong-ho, Kim Nam-gil, Choo Ja-hyeon, Han Myeong-goo-I, Park Ji-il