'The Painting of Evil' ('E Zhi Hua'): Film Review | Tokyo 2020

'The Painting of Evil'
Positivity Films Ltd. & Outland Film Production

'The Painting of Evil'

A probing poke at art and the art world.

An artist’s ideas are shaken by a talented young painter on death row in Taiwanese director Yung Chi Chen’s first feature.

The wellsprings of artistic creation are not a pretty sight in The Painting of Evil (E Zhi Hua). An original exploration into the roots of artistic inspiration, the drama is surprisingly engrossing, despite its abstract premise. In his first feature-length effort, Taiwanese short filmmaker Yung Chi Chen turns this concept into jolting images just this side of a horror film.

Though the nuances are not always crystal clear, a disturbing meaning does seep through. Easton Dong (a.k.a. Tung Ming-hsiang) is well-cast as the serious, high-minded painter Hsu Bao-ching, who is beginning to attract attention and good prices at art auctions. His slight speech and hearing impediments emphasize his concentration on the visual side of life. We meet him passionately teaching art as therapy to convicts in prison. It’s an odd place to find such a docile, cooperative bunch of amateur painters, yet their paintings are vivid and expressive, if unsettling.

The work of one young inmate, Chou Cheng-ting (River Huang), catches his eye. His painting of black lines splashed with red is a stretch to interpret, but it’s disconcerting enough for the sensitive Bao-ching to turn it around to face the wall in his studio. He paints the young man's portrait in expressionist colors. Sensing his interest, the grinning youth creepily suggests to him they could “meet outside” and go to his childhood home to see where his inspiration is coming from.

It’s not until Bao-ching organizes a group show of the prisoners’ work in the gallery of shrewd art dealer Li Shan-shan (sophisticated Esther Liu) that he learns for the first time why the boy is on death row: He went on a killing spree on a bus and then drove it into a crowd. The show in which his painting is featured does not go unnoticed. There are angry protests outside the gallery and the show is shut down by the authorities, who ignore Bao-ching’s pleas to “let the paintings speak for themselves.” He himself is attacked by a mysterious woman on crutches, evidently one of Cheng-ting's victims.

At this point curiosity spurs him to travel to the distant rice paddies where Cheng-ting grew up, and where he searches for the font of the young artist’s incredible talent. He finds it, and trembles. But the key shot is there and gone too quickly to really grasp what is making his knees weak.

Bao-ching himself is not without violent tendencies. In one scene, he misinterprets signals and sexually assaults Shan-shan, who is clearly not into him that way. Later, however, the ruthless art dealer brokers a deal: She’ll drop charges if he signs a life contract to be represented by her. One wonders if that was her intention all along; if so, it’s not just painters who are evil.

Another ambiguous female character is the young woman who has been disabled in Cheng-ting’s killing spree. Bao-ching sketches her portrait at a swimming pool where she is doing physical therapy and later exhibits it in public. The ironies pile up in the final series of scenes that equate the art world with unfeeling commerce.

This is certainly a hard film to pull off and Yung Chi Chen’s screenplay is perhaps too subtle to allow the audience to connect all the dots. Still, it avoids banality and sensationalism, leaving the horror element in the background to confront questions about the relationships between art and life, the right to privacy of victims of violent crime, the limits of censorship and whether artists and their work can ever be divorced. The fact that there is currently a debate about capital punishment going on in Taiwan should add yet another dimension locally to this promising debut.

Chi Wen Chen’s cinematography is excellent at conveying a feeling for places and moods, though the shots themselves are pretty basic. The Western cello and violin score by Thomas Foguenne adds to the film’s many ambiguities.    

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Production companies: Positivity Films in association with Outland Film Production
Cast: Easton Dong, River Huang, Esther Liu, Lin Jhih Cian
Director, screenwriter: Yung Chi Chen
Producer, executive producer: Shih Ken Lin
Director of photography: Chi Wen Chen
Production designer: Tien Chueh Lee
Costume designer: Kuan Yi Sung
Editor: Henri Chang
Music: Thomas Foguenne
World sales: Mirror Stage Films
82 minutes