The Man Who Paints Water Drops (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Understanding his artist father

Documentary film “The Man Who Paints Water Drop” attempts to look into the life and artistry of one acclaimed Korean painter who painted water drops for almost 40 years. As steadily maintaining its calm and restrained attitude, the documentary gradually delves into its human subject with considerable care and respect, and it will constantly fascinate and enlighten you even if you do not know that much about him and his works.

At first, the documentary observes the daily life of Kim Tschang-yeul (1929-2021), who incidentally passed away not long after the documentary was completed. Despite his old and fragile physical appearance on the surface, Kim looks quite focused while working in his big studio full of various paintings of water drops, and his artistic activity is not interrupted much by even the occasional intrusion of his young grandchildren, who happen to visit his residence in Seoul along with Kim’s two sons from France.

Kim is mostly gentle and endearing to his grandchildren, but Kim’s younger son Kim Oan, who made the documentary along with his co-director Brigitte Bouillot, remembers how his father was often rather distant to him and his older brother. While he looked as benign as Santa Clause, he felt more like Sphinx as being frequently reserved and distant, and that is why his two sons still remember well when he became very angry and harsh to them due to a big misbehavior of theirs many years ago.

For getting to know and understand his father more, Kim’s younger son asks some questions to his father while also interviewing his several family members including Kim’s younger brother, and the documentary shows and tells us a bit about Kim’s painful past. Around the time when Kim was a promising lad who showed considerable artistic talent, Korea was divided into North and South Korea, and he and most of his family members, who were in North Korea at that time, had to flee down to South Korea. Not long after Kim’s father went back to North Korea for a family matter, the Korean War broke out, and that was another personal trauma for Kim as he happened to witness many horrors of the war shortly after enlisted in the South Korean Army.

After the war was over, Kim focused again on his artistic career, and the documentary showed us some of his early works which are clearly the reflections of survivor’s guilt in his mind. When he later moved to New York City for some change, he came to try more of abstract painting style, and several works of his from that period convey to us how much he felt alienated as an isolated outsider surrounded by strangers quite different from him in many aspects.

In 1969, Kim moved to Paris without much expectation, but that accidentally led to a big breakthrough for his artistic career. On one day, he happened to get a moment of inspiration from water drops on one of his previous paintings, and that was the beginning of his lifelong artistic obsession with painting water drops. As he drew more and more paintings of water drops in various abstract styles, he became quite more notable around the world, and he also became known well in South Korea.

As simply listening to Kim during his interviews, the documentary slowly lets us gather that those water drops in his paintings are his own artistic way to deal with his traumas, which is mostly based on some Buddhist philosophy. Like one certain legendary Buddhist monk he often talked about, he is driven to more focus and dedication for understanding and accepting his life and the world, and that is why those water drop paintings of his look all the more poignant than before, though they still do not seem to be signifying anything particular to us.

In the meantime, Kim comes to us as a distant but undeniably gentle person capable of showing warmth and affection to others around him. Whenever he is not working or reading, he spends some playful time with his grandchildren, and we later get a little sweet moment between him and the infant kid of his younger son, who is glad to see that his father shows some genuine love and care to his little kid. In case of his French wife, whom he married shortly after coming to France, we can sense the deep bond between them even though they say much about their relationship, and it is clear to us that she has always stood by her dear husband throughout their long married life.

Nevertheless, the past still does not go away for Kim, and there is a bittersweet scene where Kim’s younger son shows his parents a satellite photograph of Kim’s old hometown in North Korea. Kim says he does not want to see the photograph more, but he cannot look away from it, and we can only guess whatever is churning behind his ever-phlegmatic façade. He can be quite emotional as attested by his younger brother, but he keeps feelings and thoughts to himself as usual, and that is all.

Overall, “The Man Who Paints Water Drops” works not only as a meditative essay on Kim’s life and artistry but also a respectful personal tribute from his younger son, who also provided the score for his documentary besides serving as its co-writer/co-producer/co-editor/co-cinematographer. As a matter of fact, I am actually ready for checking out more of Kim’s works, and I am sure you will do the same thing once you watch this solid documentary.

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