Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Drama Review: Painter of the Wind


Painter of the Wind: A-

I sometimes revisit Coffee Prince’s online reviews just to vicariously relive the wonder of seeing this Kdrama for the first time. They tend to full of fawning adoration, but I recently found something unexpected: homophobia. “A fine romantic comedy,” the reviewer wrote, “with a backhanded endorsement of homosexual love.”

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans of my generation or younger don’t think that gayness is a big deal, the general consensus being that as long as consenting adults are involved, it’s not society’s business whom I—or anyone else—chooses to love. It seems that Korea’s views on homosexuality are more traditional, though, and that in Korea the show Coffee Prince really is notable for its approach to same-sex relationships.

As far as I’m concerned, Coffee Prince is not a show about homosexuality. It’s a show that references homosexuality, sure, and uses it as a convenient obstacle to draw out the romantic tension between its two leads. There isn’t one minute, however, when the viewer believes they’re watching two people of the same gender fall in love. We see Eun Chan as a girl from the very beginning, even if Han Gyul doesn’t.

It’s a whole different story in The Painter of the Wind, a similarly themed drama that aired in 2008. Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s less candy-coated and candy-colored cousin, it revolves around the misadventures of Shin Yoon Bok, a Joseon-era girl pretending to be a boy in order to attend the royal painting institute. Naturally, she falls in love with her dashing, nonconformist (male) teacher and the two work together to solve the mystery of her father’s murder.

Thoughtful, girl-centered sageuks are hard to find, but Painter of the Wind is both. Its speedy plotting and fully drawn characters are a pleasure to watch, making it hard to stop at just one (or five) episodes at a sitting. And, unexpectedly, its painting scenes are every bit as visceral and exhilarating as the most well-executed action sequences you can imagine.

What I find most noteworthy here isn’t the show's main relationship, though. The low-key, courtly love Yoon Bok shares with her mentor is sweet and touching, if unremarkable and vaguely incestuous (he’s much older and was close friends with her real father). It's Painter of the Wind's secondary couple that really caught my attention: Yoon Bok and Jeong Hyang, the gayageum-playing gisaeng. (Try saying that five times fast. Or once, even.) While disguised as a boy, Yoon Bok allows her powerful friendship with this girl to veer into love. Their relationship is so intense, in fact, that even after the big reveal of Yoon Bok's gender, the couple continues to call each other "beautiful beloved."

Yoon Bok’s family are the only ones who know that she’s a woman, and as that family begins to shatter she is left almost totally without a support system. The show stresses that in Jeong Hyang, Yoon Bok sees both herself—a young artist forced into servitude, her life not her own—and what Yoon Bok believes she could never be again, a mannerly, feminine woman.

As Jeong Hyang becomes Yoon Bok’s muse and their relationship deepens, they share a number of tender, loving scenes and enjoy some degree of physical intimacy. We’re not talking Boys Don’t Cry here, but at one point Jeong Hyang is clearly ready to go all the way with her dear painter, and Yoon Bok is just as clearly reluctant to stop the proceedings. 

When she’s near her male mentor Yoon Bok is nervous and jumpy, afraid to touch him and more than willing to stay in the role of subservient, malleable student. With Jeong Hyang, however, she isn’t a bit shy and thoughtlessly takes the lead, right down to convincing the gisaeng to pose half-naked for a painting.

The script doesn’t seem to take a stand on what these differences mean—maybe Yoon Bok’s easy comfort around Jeong Hyang is meant to show that Yoon Bok doesn’t view her in a romantic light. Or maybe the parallel relationships exist to show Yoon Bok’s duality. She has been living as a man for her whole adolescence, forced into the role by an adoptive father hungry for her skill as a painter, and has almost completely lost her female self. Half male, she takes the lead. Half female, she is led.

If you squint just right, it's even possible to find a happy ending for Yoon Bok and Jeong Hyang. As foreshadowed in the drama's first episode, the main couple don't end up together. But the show says goodbye to both girls in the same way—they're shown separately boarding what appears to be the very same ship, headed off into the very same horizon. 

In terms of OTP, Painter of the Wind has left me no choice: Yoon Bok’s mentor may be a father to her, but Jeong Hyang is her heart.


  1. Wow, what a beautiful review. Thank you so much for this

  2. I just finished it and I'm so happy she didn't end up married to Dan Won. Not that I think they didn't love each other because they clearly loved each other, but just because it would have been the easy way out.

    Maybe also because the two girls have better chemistry than the main couple.

    1. i think so too. I'd also like to think that they met after that(the two girls) and lived happily.

  3. ooh wow, first of all, i love you..! thank you!!

    this is exactly what i search for painter of the wind couple-wise review. this is what i feel and think happen when watching the drama, but no review or article satisfied me yet until i read yours.
    and thank you, for not branding this beautiful romance with lesbianism (not that i againts it, it's just not right)

    no wonder they won best couple award ^^

  4. Actually, I thought the love between the two girls, on Yok Bok part, was their connection as artists. Yok Bok recognized her not as a prostitute but as a gifted artist, and a gifted female artist just like her. So it is like Jeong is living the life that Yok Bok wants to live, openly as a woman and as an artist. However, the unveiling scene was just to show someone, Jeong, that she is really a girl, and she knows what Jeong is going through, they are kindred souls. not that it was hot and intense but i think there is another layer there about the plight of women as artist and not as lovers/mothers/wives. Yok Bok is in disguise, and Jeong is considered an object for sex...

  5. where can i find full movie .. i cant watch because of my country ..

  6. where can i find full movie .. i cant watch because of my country ..

    1. You can use the Hola extension on Chrome and watch it on Viki.com. That's how I did it.

  7. Oh my god, does the artist and the musician get together?
    I'm so friggin' happy. Will continue watching now.

  8. Unfortunately yet fortunately, I was able to watch this beautiful Korean historical fiction 9 years after it was shown. The review was indeed nice and I hope there came a time when Yoon Bok had settled for what she believed is her real identity. Either with her mentor or with her beloved Jeong Hyang, I am sure Yoon Bok would have found real happines at long last.