The Passion of a Man Called Choe Che-u: Busan Film Review

Oblique meditation on faith and the nature of art make for awkward bedfellows

The historical drama details the persecution, arrest and execution of 19th century religious leader Choe Che-u.

A modest historical drama detailing the persecution, arrest and execution of 19th century religious leader Choe Che-u, The Passion of a Man Called Choe Che-u starts with a whimper and ends the same way. Deliberately paced to the point of somnolent and meticulously composed, Passion of a Man is a film that will mean more to a Korean audience than anyone else, narrowing its potential for any kind of success. As is typical of films like this, it’s festival material to its very core; vaguely mysterious topic may appeal to Asian-focused fests, but even an art house life seems like a long shot.

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The film begins with a history lecture that rattles off a laundry list of the major actors in Donghak (or Eastern Learning) progenitor Choe’s life, their positions, and the central dogma’s accomplishments vis-à-vis the Japanese colonial period, an 1894 peasant revolution, and its place in shaping Korea’s democratic development in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s a wordy passage that could be made easier with a Ph.D in Asian history and it sets the academic tone to come. Choe’s (Park Sung-jun) life unfolds in a series of flashbacks that center around his torture and death at the hands of the state, and his development as a religious guru. Scenes of him holding court in an idyllic field are myriad.

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The stagey and agonizingly static Passion of a Man also boasts an uncomfortable marriage of subject matters — the film is very obviously a constructed piece of art, calling into question the essence of filmmaking — that makes it ponderous and ultimately irritating. Made on a microscopic budget, multi-tasking first time director Stanley Park is known as a film critic at home, and it shows in the erudite and often show-offy vibe. That being said, he has managed to pull off a level of polished filmmaking (and color correction!) not often seen in digital indies. But that doesn’t save the film from its belief in its own importance.

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As an exploration of the nature of religion and faith, Park is most guilty of missing opportunities. In many circles Donghak would be called a cult, but Park never broaches that aspect. Why encroaching Catholicism was viewed as a threat to the nation remains unclear. How Donghak’s “egalitarian principles” fueled Korea’s burgeoning democracy never connects contextually. The muddled, willfully esoteric and philosophical script never really engages the practice’s tenets. In the end, viewers would probably learn more about Donghak from Wikipedia.

Section: New Currents World Premiere
Production company: The Filmclassic Production
Producer: Stanley Park
Director: Stanley Park
Cast: Park Sung-jun, Song Kung-yea, Park Il-jung, Jung Ki-seon, Han Jae-beom,
Screenwriter: Stanley Park
Director of Photography: Oh Kwang-keun
Music: Stanley Park
Costume designer: Stanley Park
Editor: Go Im-pyo
No rating, 107 minutes