Shin Yun Bok (Kim Min-sun) is a painter-in-training in 18th century Korea. While skilled and creative, he has two problems. Firstly, he is constantly driven to explore unconventional styles and subject matters for his art – matter which is oftentimes controversial and obscene. Secondly, he is actually a young woman, disguising her true identity to maintain her family’s honour within Korean society’s strict gender expectations.
Portrait of a Beauty is a sumptuously staged historical drama. It looks great, with colourful costumes and sets, beautifully composed camera angles and reasonably strong performances. It’s also a pretty awful film: twisting history for entertainment purposes, titillating audiences with regular and lengthy sex scenes, and indulging in exactly the kind of typically over-the-top and overwrought melodrama that makes so much Korean entertainment a chore through which to sit.
Shin Yun Bok, later known as Hyewon, was a real-life court artist. He was born in 1758 and followed both his father and grandfather into painting. Today he is widely regarded as one of the three key artists of the Joseon period, breaking ground with both his erotic works and his depictions of daily Korean life. His life is relatively obscure: historians know he existed, and they know his works, but his personal details remain unknown.
Author Lee Jeong-myeong was inspired by the lack of detail about Hyewon’s life to write a popular novel, Painter of the Wind, which supposed the artist was in fact a woman disguised as a man in order to work within the royal court. The novel was successful enough to inspire a television drama and then this feature film, directed by Jeon Yun-su. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the idea. Certainly it’s a more legitimate choice than Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which takes Shakespeare’s works out of his own hands and into those of another person altogether, but it is a weird sort of biographical sabotage. Why use a real artist? Why not create a fictional character instead?
Kim Min-sun gives a very strong and surprisingly subdued performance among all of the male over-acting and excess histrionics. Naturally people begin to realise Yun Bok is a woman and she winds up in the middle of a jealous sexual triangle, wedged between a dashing mirror-maker and her possessive painting instructor. The resolution of this romantic entanglement is highly predictable and thus rather unsatisfying. In between there’s a curious story progression where her instructor rapes her but she ultimately forgives him and saves his life. It feels distasteful, and with much of the film’s nudity seemingly presented for a heterosexual male gaze it all makes for a rather unpleasant pattern.
People with a high tolerance of – or even an active liking for – this kind of period may find quite a lot of enjoyment out of Portrait of a Beauty. It is shot well, and it’s gorgeously costumed, and Kim Min-sun is very good in the lead. I personally found it a bit too ripe to handle.
This review was first published at The Angriest on 1 September 2015.