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East Asian Painting and Cinema

Biopics about Japanese, South Korean and Chinese painters among other films.


The groundbreaking, seminal study edited by Ehrlich and Desser on Sino-Japanese paintings and film must be mentioned at the start (see bibliography). Donald Richie’s article from it on “Film and the Visual Arts in Japan” can serve as a brief introduction here where he writes that some sequences from the films of Mizoguchi can be “compared to those in handscrolls, Ichikawa’s, to woodblock prints and modern graphics, Kurosawa’s—in the later films—to classic byobu (standing screens)” see Richie in Ehrlich/Desser158. One concrete example provided is Mizoguchi’s The Loyal Ronin of the Genroku Era (1941-42) whose sequences are “known to have painterly originals” as in the conference sequence, “based on one of the scenes in the famous handscrolls illustrating The Tale of Genji” and shot “from such an angle that one is reminded of the unroofed chambers in the scrolls” see161, also for screen shot and scroll reproduction, and below for the shot and scroll (actually depicting Lady Murasaki’s death) respectively:



Five Women around Utamaro (Japan 1946 by Kenji Mizoguchi with Minosuke Bandô as printmaker and painter of bijinga or paintings of ‘beautiful’ women Kitagawa UTAMARO 1753-1806). Thorough analyses of the film can be found in and by Dalle Vacche, “Film between Woodblock Printing and Tattooing” (Cinema and Painting 197—220) and by Dudley Andrew, “Ways of Seeing Japanes Prints and Films” (Ehrlich/Desser 217—240).


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Source: You Tube by OsPassosDoGatoPreto


Kwaidan (Japan 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi)

Kobayashi’s first colour film was inspired by four traditional ghost stories retold by the Irish-Greek-American journalist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904): “The Black Hair,” “The Woman of the Snow,” “Hoichi the Earless” and “In a Cup of Tea.” In the third one the ghosts of a famous battle force a young blind Buddhist monk to continually retell their story as they meet each night in an abandoned graveyard. Here “Kobayashi refers directly to scroll painting descriptions of the decisive Minamoto and Taira battle at Dan no Ura in 1185 and counterposes these images with a stylized theatrical reenactment.” Kwaidan in any case very often makes use “of the bird’s-eye and the omniscient … floating perspectives associated with traditional Japanese art” see Cynthia Contreras in Ehrlich/Desser 246. The director was an East Asian art student, which can be seen in the film’s set design (all the sets are hand painted) and use of colours in particular. For three screen shots from the battle sequence see

and for the paintings see


Yumeji (夢二, Japan 1991 by Seijun Suzuki with former rock star Kenji Sawada as the poet-painter Takehisa YUMEJI 1884-1934).


Official trailer:


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Source: You Tube by Quadflix


Yumeji forms the final part (after a ten-year gap) of Suzuki’s Taishō Trilogy together with Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Melodies 1980) and Kagero-za (Heat Haze Theatre 1981), fantastical, surrealistic ghost stories all set “in the exuberant and intense Taisho era 1912-1926, the transforming period in which the West’s raucous Jazz Age was introduced into a rapidly modernizing Japan.” Popularly called the ‘Japanese Toulouse-Lautrec’, Yumeji is known for his bohemian lifestyle and paintings of women or “bijinga… in natural poses with slightly melancholic expressions” (Murguia 374). The six museums dedicated to his work as painter, printmaker and illustrator testify to his lasting appeal. For further biographical details see


For his paintings, prints, and information about six exhibitions and three museums see


Video: The Art of Yumeji Takehisa is a color slide show of his art


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Source: You Tube by Vertigo1871


As not very much “is known about Yumeji’s early artist’s life” the director obviously felt free to do whatever he wanted with his protagonist “and created a portrait of a whimsical painter madly engaging with his subjects” (Murguia 374).Yumeji travels to Kanazawa to meet his lover but instead falls for a widow whose murdered husband returns from the dead. The film is full of very intense, overly bright colors with many connecting narrative sections deliberately skipped or left out. Here is a typical sequence:


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Source: You Tube by Poly Zone


After the opening credits Yumeji is at a garden party entranced by a woman without a face in a red kimono suspended from a tree branch. Large, brightly coloured balls are bounced up into the air by a group of people in Western-style dress as Yumeji tries to push his way through dressed in Japanese attire. A little later we see close-ups and medium shots of hands on wooden beams and travel trunks that dissolve into paintings or appear then fade away. As regards how the traditional Japanese interior is depicted, screens and dividing walls create flat surfaces, horizontal and vertical lines marking the boundaries. The way the traditional Japanese house is laid out creates different blocks of space either empty or full, receding from the fore- to the background.


At the end of the film Yumeji is standing in a field of tall grass wondering “who and what he has been waiting for, questions answered by the film’s final sequence, a return to the woman floating in the tree from the opening sequence only now there is a segue into Yumeji’s Song of Evening Primrose painting, first seen in close-up before the camera slowly backtracks ever further until the painted screen is left hovering (like the woman) at the centre of the image surrounded by black:


Chi-hwa-seaon (South Korea 2002 by Im Kwon-taek with Choi Min-sik as the nineteenth-century Korean painter Jang SEUNG-EOP 1843-1897. The title has been variously translated as Painted Fire, Strokes of Fire or Drunk on Women and Poetry or into German as Rausch der Farben und der Liebe = in the frenzy/intoxication/rapture of colours and love).


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Source: You Tube by rodazi


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Source: You Tube by smk072104


SHIN YUN-BOK aka Hyewon 1758-1813, one of the three most important folk painters of the Joseon Kingdom (1391-1910). The 2007 historical fiction novel The Painter of Wind by Lee Jung-myung advances the theory that Shin may actually have been a cross-dressed girl, an idea that was subsequently taken up by the 2008 South Korean TV historical drama Painter of the Wind directed by Jang Tae-yoo and Jin Hyuk with Park Shin-yang as the painter. Though born a girl, Shin lives her whole life as a man because of discrimination against women in education and other areas of life and also to find who murdered her father. The same year a feature film based on the same novel was released, Portrait of a Beauty (South Korea 2008 by Jeon Yun-su) with actress Kim Min-sun as the (again female) painter who dresses as a man as a strategy of survival in the Confucian era.


Hua Hun / A Soul Haunted by Painting (China 1994 by Huang Shuqin with Gong Li as PAN YULUIANG 1899-1977, who was sold into prostitution at the age of 15 before becoming a painter, graphic artist and sculptor)


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Part 1 of 8 – Source: YouTube by filmandfilm.


Yuliang’s life story is also told in the 2003 Hong Kong Television Broadcasts Limited drama series Painting Soul by Guan Jinpeng where her role is played by Michelle Reis)


Tyrus Wong (1910-2016)


On the occasion of his death on 30 December the New York Times published “How ‘Bambi’ Got Its Look from 1,000-Year-Old Chinese Art” by Daniel McDermon. Calling the Chinese-American “an incredibly accomplished painter, illustrator, calligrapher and Hollywood studio artist”, McDermon goes on to emphasize “his essential contribution to Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi.” Obviously influenced by the landscape paintings of the formative Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) such as Xia Gui’s “Sailboat in a Rainstorm” from 1189-94, the style employed by Wong in Bambi puts the stress firmly on “the film’s animal characters in the foreground, evoking the lush surrounding forest with minimal brushwork, gentle washes and slashes of color.” For the whole article see


including reproductions of (sketches for) paintings and of film stills. McDermon’s piece also draws attention to “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky”, Wong’s first comprehensive retrospective exhibition from

15 August 2013—3 February 2014:


KING HU (1932-1997)

Also a set designer, his films have often been analysed in terms of their painterly compositions and influences, for example in the area of landscape.


Hai Tao’s The Painter (2012) is about the seventh-eight century Tang dynasty painter WU DAOZI (680-c. 760) see


The Lady in the Portrait/Le portrait interdit (China/France 2017 by Charles de Meaux)

In the 18th century and at the time of the Qing Dynasty, the Jesuit priest Jean-Denis Attiret is working at the Chinese imperial court of Emperor Qianlong. Empress Ulanara commissions Attiret (both real-life figures whose stories are fictionalized here) to paint her portrait in the hope of deflecting her husband’s interest in other women. The initially reserved nature of Ulanara and Attiret’s painting sessions eventually gives way to sexual attraction. The director was apparently inspired by a real painting see


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Source: You Tube by COLCOA French Film Festival


See also Katsushika Ōi in Biopics of Twenty-One Women.


Visage/Face (France/Taiwan/Belgium/Netherlands 2009 Tsai-Ming Liang).

The Taiwanese filmmaker Hsiao-Kang goes to Paris to make a film based on the myth of Salomé at the Louvre, which commissioned and partly financed Visage. Tableaux vivants and the intertextuality of Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist (1513-16).


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