The Painter: Hong Kong Review

A must-see for festivals interested in art.

Director Hai Tao shows great respect and invention in approaching a delicate subject – the role of the artist in Chinese society.

About Wu Daozi, a master Chinese artist of the Tang dynasty, a legend has long made the rounds: One day, as he was contemplating a wall painting he had just completed, he clapped his hands. The temple gate opened and he stepped into the mural, never to be seen again. Hai Tao’s The Painter traces the great artist’s disappearance in a significant fashion. Not only is it a calm, soothing dip into traditional art and wisdom; it passionately champions the absolute necessity of artistic freedom of expression. Though set in the distant past, the message comes across loud and clear. Released last year in China, the Beijing Film and TV production is a small gem that should be right up festival alley and a delight for anyone interested in films about art.

The Buddha-like face of a young man of noble bearing at first masks his grasping arrogance. This is Tang Anzhou (Xu Ning), a traveler who arrives at a gracious village inn run by the beautiful inn-keeper Hong Jiang (Guo Zhenni), a patron of the arts. To impress her, Tang shuts his eyes and paints a life-size woman with child on the spot. Drunk and dirty, the village crazy Sir Hu (Wu Ma) stumbles in chasing a rooster around the inn. When he catches sight of the fetching drawing Tang has just completed, he expresses his opinion by spewing wine all over it. Tang takes umbrage, but Hong is strangely indulgent and explains that the old man is a harmless loony.

The truth is that Hu is none other than Wu Daozi in disguise. Years ago, his extraordinary murals of rural scenes and court pageantry so pleased the Emperor that he forbid Wu to pick up a brush, except by imperial decree. Instead of being honored, Wu vanished from court. Tucked away in the forgotten village, he paints as he likes -- magnificent household gods on doors and walls for villagers looking for good luck. The reason behind his friendship with Hong, who is more than an inn-keeper, and Tang’s real identity are revealed by and by.

Tyro director Hai Tao shows great respect and invention in approaching what must be a delicate subject – the role of the artist in Chinese society. The story is set in the 8th century, but it’s hard not to notice modern parallels. He brings a fresh eye to lovingly describe the period and creates characters that remain in memory.

Well-known Hong Kong actor and martial arts film director Wu Ma (A Chinese Ghost Story) throws himself into the part of the uncompromising artist with gusto, wit and seeming enjoyment. As the art patron, Guo Zhenni is a wonderfully authoritative female character and an impressive example of restrained emotion combined with intellect.

A landscape of bright marigolds and petroleum greens overcomes a somewhat low-budget look. Costumes, hair and makeup take their cue from the astonishing horned hairstyles and graceful draped clothes displayed in Wu’s paintings.

The print screened at Filmart was urgently in need of more modern and readable English subtitles.

Venue: Hong Kong Filmart, Mar. 22, 2013.

 Production company: Zhongshi Hanlin (Beijing) International Film and TV

Cast: Wu Ma, Xu Ning, Guo Zhenni, Hung Yihan

Director:  Hai Tao

Screenwriter:  Ran Jianan

Producer: Yang Shanshan

Executive producer:  Ran Ping

Director of photography: Sha Jincheng

Production designer: Jin Yang

Editors: Zhang Yifan, Hai Tao

Music: Dong Dongdong

Sales Agent: Beijing Film and TV Planning Co.

No rating, 90 minutes.