A Soul Haunted by Painting (1994)

“I threw myself into a sea of art.”

The Chinese film, A Soul Haunted By Painting begins in the early twentieth century. It’s the true story of a beautiful prostitute, Yuliang (Gong Li) who breaks free of a brothel and becomes a famous artist when she runs off with the liberal, educated married businessman Pan Zanhua (Er Dongsheng). At first Pan, a customs official, takes Yuliang with him planning on freeing her by sending her back home. Thanks to gossip, plus a mutual attraction, Pan makes Yuliang his second wife and even teaches her how to read.

When Pan goes off on a “business trip” (we see one scene of Pan dressed in uniform mounted on a horse), he leaves Yuliang with an artist friend. Yuliang is drawn to art, and while Pan is away, she begins painting–and this begins her life long obsession and solace.

The film concentrates on showing that Yuliang made many sacrifices in order to be an artist. Painting nudes was completely unacceptable in China, and Yuliang, unable to give Pan a child, chooses to leave China and embark for France. Pursuing art in Paris establishes Yuliang as a major talent, but fame and recognition does not bring Yuliang personal happiness.

A Soul Haunted by Painting succeeds in some details more than others. For example, the scenes of the brutality of brothel life, and the interactions between Yuliang and Pan’s first wife are exceeding well done. However, when the film stretches to reach the category of sweeping epic, it falls short. For example, Pan’s “business trip” and Yuliang’s adjustment to Parisian life are never explained.

The film quality lacks the sharpness one expects from a DVD release–although the picture’s quality is certainly acceptable. Yuliang’s story is a grand one–full of struggle, determination, and defiance. But somehow the film loses all that, and it remains rather pedestrian fare. For fans of Chinese cinema, art history, or fans of the delectable Gong Li, however, the film is worth renting just for the visuals alone.

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