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Chi-hwa-seon (Painted Fire)

Aside from the Western, American movies tend to take place now, or in the future, or in a fantasy universe. Or all three at once. But one of the great virtues of Asian cinema has always been its interest in plowing and replowing the fertile pages of that continent's history. It's possible that the cultures of China, Japan and Korea are more seamlessly a continuation of their past, while Westerners spend much of their time attempting cataclysmic breaks from the same.

Although much of Asian cinema has joined the 21st century, the great Korean director Im Kwon-Taek have spent his career forging into the past. Along the way, he brings vital cultural elements of Korea--a country long obscured by its bigger and more bellicose neighbors--to Western audiences. Two years ago the Carolina Theatre of Durham brought in Chunhyang, Im's last film, which introduced us to the pansori tradition in which a storyteller yowls, sings and screams as he retells ancient folktales.

Now the Carolina Theatre is showing Chi-hwa-seon (Painted Fire), a film that brings the 67-year-old director tantalizingly close to the 100-film mark.

Chi-hwa-seon is an energetic study of an important painter from the Chisun period of Korea--the late 19th century, a period of decline. The painter, Jang Seung-up, was a man of low birth whose talent was discovered by a sympathetic aristocrat who arranged for an apprenticeship. However, Jang remained a difficult and controversial figure and one who never left his humble origins behind--not least because others would not let him forget. The film follows the rising and falling fortunes, according to the times and the patrons, and the resulting portrait is something of a painterly roaring boy, a Korean Caravaggio, Pollock or Bacon.

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