Kim Tschang-yeul’s son finds clarity with artist documentary


A scene from the documentary “The Man Who Paints Water Drops”, which follows renowned artist Kim Tschang-yeul between 2015 and 2019. [MIRU PICTURES]

The name Kim Tschang-yeul (1929-2021) is immediately associated with images of crystal clear water drops. Shapes and variations may vary, but the artist drew water drops, and the water drops only lasted more than half of his life before passing away at the age of 91 in January. .

Countless times at press events for his solo exhibitions, reporters would press him on the reason for his choice of topic and follow up with questions such as “You don’t get tired of drawing the same material every time.” ? Or “Don’t you want to try something new?” ”

Sometimes the enigmatic artist would answer such questions directly, while other times he was ambiguous. Kim would sometimes quote his inspiration from the teachings of Bodhidharma, well known as the father of Zen Buddhism or quotes from the Taoist text Tao Te Ching, which contain teachings from the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu, while other times would say that his drops of water are “insignificant”. ”

“All of my actions of pulling out drops of water are to dissolve everything in the drops and bring them back to nothing,” he said in an interview. “The driving is to drain all the rage and anxiety and fear that I have.”

“All men want to date beautiful women when they see one,” he replied in another interview. “But they can’t. Because they have a wife. An artist cannot be free to try this and that. At least not in my generation. [Artists] were free until Picasso.

Some of Kim’s responses were darker in tone, highlighting her difficult past.

“The drops of water are the lightest [substance] and these are the closest materials to nothingness, but for me they are scars, tears caused by these scars, liquid thicker than tears.

"Recurrence" (2014) by Kim Tschang-yeul [KIM TSCHAN YEUL ART MUSEUM]

“Recurrence” (2014) by Kim Tschang-yeul [KIM TSCHAN YEUL ART MUSEUM]

Kim was born in Maengsan, now in North Korea. He grew up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the division of the country after World War II. He lived through the Korean War (1950-53), witnessing countless deaths and tragedies.

The trauma of his youth will haunt him for the rest of his life and play an intrinsic role in his art.


His son Oan Kim hoped to share the depth of his father’s wounds through his first documentary “The Man Who Paints Water Drops”. The documentary won the Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award which is given to beginning filmmakers for their first or second Korean feature film at the 13th DMZ International Documentary Film Festival. The event took place from September 9 to 16 of this year.

Directors Oan Kim, left, and Brigitte Bouillot received the Silver Horn Award at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland in June. [KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL]

Directors Oan Kim, left, and Brigitte Bouillot received the Silver Horn Award at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland in June. [KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL]

The documentary first premiered at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland last June and won the Silver Horn Award for its high artistic values.

“I believe most people get the impression about his artwork is that it’s very simple, minimal and understated,” Kim said in an online interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily last week. “For me, I always thought there was another level of depth behind his alluring works. Audiences today consider old Kim Tschang-yeul to be very calm and wise, but when you look deep down he endures uncontrollable pain, darkness and injury.

Kim, 47, is the second son of Kim Tschang-yeul and his surviving French wife, Martine Jillion Kim. He is active as a photographer and musician and co-directed the documentary with his fellow photographer, 65-year-old Brigitte Bouillot.

“We [Oan and I] had just finished a project together when Oan brought up the fact that he was making a documentary about his father, ”Bouillot said. “I had seen Kim Tschang-yeul’s art before, but I had never met the artist and was not very familiar with his works. But I could feel that Oan was struggling emotionally so I offered to help him with the script. It wasn’t long after he asked me to co-direct the documentary and I was very happy to oblige.

Kim Tschang-yeul in "The man who paints water drops." [MIRU PICTURES]

Kim Tschang-yeul in “The man who paints drops of water”. [MIRU PICTURES]

The film begins with the narration of Oan Kim, describing his relationship with his father.

“There is a gap between us,” says Kim. “A crack. But it’s also part of our relationship.

“I never told Oan about it, but what I found interesting was that Kim Tschang-yeul was a man of loneliness,” Bouillot said. “His love for his family and his loneliness existed simultaneously. Sometimes Oan had a little trouble understanding his lonely father, and for Kim Tschang-yeul, he would have had his own difficulties because he was not French.

“Sometimes when I watch my dad, I see a lost man, unable to really face others and the world,” Kim recounts at one point in the documentary. “He is always surrounded by those who love him, respect him and wish him luck, but there is always a distance: between him and me, him and his wife, him and the world.”

The film captures moments in the artist’s life between 2015 and 2019, when he was between 85 and 90 years old. Throughout the film, he remains mostly silent, his expression unreadable, the mystical element within him amplified by his unusually black bulging eyes, tufts of white hair and beard.

“Ironically enough, the father was a very transparent man and his character was very straightforward,” Kim said. “But he also seemed to be someone loaded with heavy secrets. I can’t say from when I started to understand his silence, but what I can tell you is that I was finally able to grasp, through this film, how much of the tragedy he lived in his youth has affected his entire life.

“Like the majority of traumatized people do, my dad didn’t say much about what he saw,” Kim said. “But I was aware that he had suffered in the war, that he had lost his friends and his family, but I only really realized the depth of his wounds by making this film. Then I realized how it affected his art as well. Outside, her water drops are beautiful, pure, and calm people’s minds, but I was sorry to see the origin of beauty come from her pain.

Kim shared some of his thoughts on his father’s works where he sympathized with the artist’s pain.

” In her youth [before he discovered water drops], there is an oil painting titled ‘Injury’ [1964] in which we could represent bullet marks, ”Kim said. “Another is one of his ‘Rite’ Informal Art paintings [1964], which symbolizes a person crushed to death by a chariot. Both are examples of how his injuries have been assimilated into his works. After he started drawing water drops I think [his hurt] was represented in melancholy forms. Water drops have a delicate brittleness intended to disappear at any time, but there are stains next to the water drops, sometimes there are no stains, and sometimes there are only stains. . I think these are metaphors for death.

Usually empty or distant, the artist only seems truly happy and satisfied at the sight of his grandchildren.

Kim Tschang-yeul kisses her grandson in "The man who paints water drops." [MIRU PICTURES]

Kim Tschang-yeul kisses her grandson in “The man who paints drops of water”. [MIRU PICTURES]

“He loved children, especially babies,” Kim said. “So by the time I was 18 he would ask me repeatedly when I was going to get married and when will I have children. I think this is a common question that can be asked frequently in Korea. I think he liked the purity that a child has when he is young.

“As a father he was a man of few words, but sometimes he was very strict, and we were always careful with him.”

“My point of view also changed, in the way I viewed families and their relationships,” Bouillot said. “When I first met this family, I was so surprised by their calm and distance. It was cold to me. But while filming this documentary, I realized that this was just one aspect of a culture that I had never experienced and it was exciting for me to approach a different kind of relationship.

Although he interviewed and filmed his father for five years, Kim Tschang-yeul didn’t fully open up to his son, and there were still parts of his father that Kim only learned through ‘press interviews or other outside sources.

“I believe it was because of his stealthy manner or his cautiousness,” Kim said. “I don’t think he would have wanted to reveal his vulnerability in front of his family or his children. For him, maybe it was easier to talk in front of strangers.

“It’s actually funny because if Oan spent his time trying to break his father’s silence, I spent time trying to get Oan out of his silence,” Bouillot said with a smile.

"Water drops" (2000) by Kim Tschang-yeul [KIM TSCHAN YEUL ART MUSEUM]

Kim Tschang-yeul’s “Drops of Water” (2000) [KIM TSCHAN YEUL ART MUSEUM]

When the Korea JoongAng Daily asked the two directors what the water drops mean to them, Kim gave an answer as enigmatic as her father’s.

“What I can tell you is that the water drops cannot be reduced to one direction,” Kim said. “Imagery has an ambiguity and people continue to perceive and see art [due to this quality]. I can give many explanations of what the water drops mean to me, but I don’t think it’s my place to put them on the map, to find any special meaning for them.

“For me, the drops of water speak of the irony between innocence and cruelty, purity and violence,” Bouillot said. “I think all the artist’s emotions and expressions swell and collide in these drops. It’s a way of seeing how all of humanity’s ambiguity and its expressions are clustered within this painstakingly transparent surface.

“The Man Who Paints Water Drops” is expected to be released locally, but neither a distributor nor a date has been set.

BY LEE JAE-LIM [[email protected]]

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