who tells the better story? – who tells the story better?
It’s one thing to watch two kdrama adaptations of the same story, like MBC’s The Return of Iljimae and SBS’s Iljimae. It’s quite another to have at your disposal feature film interpretations of stories already elaborated in full length dramas as happens with two artistic geniuses of the Joseon era whose lives are dramatized in the television series Hwang Jin Yi and Painter of the Wind. Both Hwang Jin Yi (1506 – c. 1560) and Shin Yun Bok (born 1758) were brilliant artists with complicated lives. The profiles drawn of the gisaeng-dancer-poet and the painter also known as Hyewon in the two sets of stories told about each offer intriguing examples of how fictional dramatizations of individual histories can vary. Very soon after, or concurrently with, the hugely successful drama series based on sensationally popular novels made about each of the two artists, feature film retellings of their stories — drawn from the same sources but treated very differently — were released. From what I have seen of all four, I cannot imagine the films enjoying anything near the popular and critical success the series enjoyed and it seemed worthwhile to consider what factors may contribute to this disparity.
- Released 2006 (Oct-Dec) Hwang Jin Yi [Series: 24 (60 min.) episodes]
- Released 2007 (June 6) Hwang Jin Yi [Feature Film: 141 min.]
- Released 2008 (Sept-Dec) The Painter of the Wind [Series: 20 (60 min.) episodes]
- Released 2008 (Nov 8) Portrait of a Beauty [Feature Film: 108 min.]
I saw the two tv drama series first and was mightily, mightily impressed. So much so that in the case of Hwang Jin Yi, I became intrigued by the aesthetics of art dance, the conventions of musical artistry and the refinements of poetry in the Joseon Dynasty. Although the telling of Hwang Jin Yi’s various love stories was rather beautifully done, it was her growth as an artist and the development of her craft that brought me back to watching the series a couple of times. In the case of The Painter of the Wind, it was the way the craft and semiotics of painting was used to tell the story that hooked me and drew me back time and again. The series was a consistent and dramatically compelling tableau of the artist at work replete with a brilliant showcase of the works that came of his inspiration and labor. That the protagonists of both stories were women (albeit a transgendered cross-dresser passing for a man in the case of Hyewon) renders the men presented in the stories more readily identifiable as types across a spectrum which ranges from the well-intentioned but weak to the steadfast and principled partner and, when necessary, protector. The female protagonists are, even with their fears, foibles and failures, the most indomitable forces in the world they occupy. Seeing them excel by sheer force of will despite the personal, social and political obstacles they encounter as their stories unfold makes us appreciate the strength they must possess in order to sustain such weighty burden.
Well, it just so happens that neither of the film treatments of the stories of Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok did much in the service of these individuals’ crafts, let alone in character development. While Portrait of a Beauty did sketch the young artist’s development and did occasionally show her actually engaged in painting a picture here and there, Hwang Jin Yi seemed far more concerned with the class dilemma the young lady had to deal with upon discovering that she was in fact illegitimate offspring of the nobleman whose wife had raised her. In both cases the protagonists were involved in some very thorny love affairs replete with some rather involved and, in a couple of cases, ugly sexual encounters which did nothing really to illuminate either the characters or their craft. In both films the men who occupied roles of guardian or protector came off as selfish and needy and not above resorting to violence to satisfy their appetites while the women under their care — the protagonists in this case — seemed patiently submissive to all manner of abuse… There was so little depth of character in either film that it was difficult to see the rather difficult and perplexing choices our heroines made as stemming from anything other than the dictates of the script…
Portrait of a Beauty is especially guilty of making its story an elaborate exercise in the sexual objectification of its protagonist — a goal clearly illustrated by the published promotional images – like the one above – stripping Shin Yun Bok’s ‘Beauty’ of her neat joegori (the short jacket of the women’s Hanbok) and leaving her naked but for a disheveled sangtu (hair top knot worn by men) and the iconic blue chima (the billowy skirt of the Hanbok). By comparison, the meta-narrative finesse with which Painter of the Wind used the artist’s work is clearly apparent in the promotional images drawn from an early scene at the beginning of the story. (see image below).
The 2007 film edition of Hwang Jin Yi features Song Hye Kyo in the titular role and is, from beginning to end, an unrelenting dirge. Where in the tv series the story of this most famous poet, dancer, gisaeng is treated with Classical and Romantic sensibilities reminiscent of Jane Austen’s heroines (with a touch of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for its nuances of ethical righteousness), the film version is imbued with a sense of Dickens lost in the gloomy ruins of the much more dour Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – minus the flair. Like Portrait of a Beauty, the film focuses entirely on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s emotional life set in the sketchy context of a few traumatic moments without ever offering any depth of character. Both films therefore suffer considerably from giving far too little attention to the vitality of the very thing that makes these two artistic geniuses, Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok, significant to posterity — their craft.
Now, as riveting as it may be to watch the emotional, well, drama of any individual’s life unfold on film, the truth is that these experiences can be fairly generic — which may account for why we can empathize so readily with the joys and pains of both neighbors and strangers. However, I think a story is even further undermined when the context in which these vicissitudes unfold is treated as a mere curiosity – an exotic setting in which to tell a generic tale.
In the life of artists who are willing to make great personal sacrifices for the sake of their craft, it is only reasonable to present this craft in such a way that audiences, however ignorant of that particular craft, may come to not only recognize the value that craft holds in the context of the story, but also come to value it themselves. This way, audiences can appreciate the significance and the beauty of the art in question as part of a universal patrimony of which they are the beneficiaries. They can also understand, and yea, empathize with – and even champion – the sacrifices the artist in question chooses to make for the sake of that universal patrimony.
After having seen the series (which serve to showcase the art and craft of both Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok), and after comparing them with the films (which simply used them as props in rather generic, sad, dramas), I have formulated an hypothesis about why the series manage to tell so much more satisfying stories about these artists. Let me preface by clarifying that I do not believe the length or format were a significant factor in delivering a good story. Twenty minutes into the films I had already tapped my patience and curiosity reserves to get me through the rest of both films while in the case of both the drama series I was hooked in less than 10 minutes during which time the dramas had gained enough momentum to carry me through 1200+ minutes of subtlety, complexity, drama, showcase.
The most significant element in the 24 and 20 episode series about Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok respectively, is that they engage the viewer immediately in what mattered most to these individuals, educating us about their aesthetic development as we get to know our protagonists better. We, in turn, come to care about our heroines’s desires and ability to excel in their talents because, by the time any kind of conflict arises that threatens to compromise their creative impulse within the story, it matters to us that these agents of genius can wield the refinements of their craft to champion their works of Art.