Recommends: The Cinema of Lee Chang-dong and Why He’s Your New Favourite Director
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
An avid lover of modern South Korean cinema - finding its social and political voice excitingly engaging, with great humour and brilliant suspense generously scattered across a multitude of genres whilst being executed marvellously - it has surprised even myself that I have done little more than mention the occasional film on this blog. Even after predominately engaging in both serious cinematic outputs and lots and lots of K-dramas in the past few weeks (I live for it, it lives for me, we are one and the same, I can’t help it, it’s who I am more than I’d like to admit). I’ve rinsed the satires of Bong Joon-ho, the merciless Kim Jee-woon and the vengeful Park Chan-wook; that was easy enough and totally enjoyable along the way. I’ve even dabbled in some of the semi-nihilistic, festival-friendly films of the late Kim Ki-duk, not to mention box office-smash melodramas for the hopeless romantics such as myself.
But, amongst all these fabulously original voices, there is one more I would like to discuss today. It is not that this director is better than his contemporaries; in fact he fits perfectly well amongst them. For Lee Chang-dong is the poet.
Despite a fruitful career as a teacher, novelist and even the Minister of Culture in South Korea between 2003 to 2004, Lee is most notable to western audiences as a director. A significant force in Korean New-wave, he is perceived as being an incredibly progressive and bold director, in his native country he is deemed both controversial and too left-wing, even going as far as being blacklisted by the previous conservative government. He is often considered outspoken, desiring more funding for Independent cinema and better representation by the Koran movie industry and boycotted the Blue Dragon Film Awards Ceremony in 2002 due to conflicts with the conservative Newspaper hosting the event, Chosun Ilbo (His films are no longer submitted for this competition however, Lee respects the filmmakers and actors who garner nominations and success at the event).
Lee was born in the rightist city of Daegu, to lower class parents who were left-leaning yet his family came from a once noble class and for this we see the works of a man whose socialist views are burdened with the understanding of the atrocious injustice of the world he lives in. This does not isolate his films from western audiences. His political views are incredibly modern and far more ahead of their time than given credit for, and unfortunately the trials and tribulations his characters endure are far more familiar than even we care to admit. The rich thrive and the poor hardly survive.
Lee is not afraid to explore poverty, mental health, suicide, religion, disability and mortality in his cinema, using the context of a socially divided setting to really strike home the unjust political system. He explores psychological trauma realistically, tainted innocence at the hands of repression. He’s trying to make change, through the poetry of cinema and life. His style is both melodramattic and minimal, with rare uses of the surreal, choosing a more literary approach which provides a wide range of characters and depth to what can appear to be simple stories. He uses dance or karaoke scenes to portray a charcters turmoil rather than outlandish monolgues or extreme acts of violence, portraying the fragility of the human psyche. Lee finds haunting words for the most harrowing moments and perceives light in the darkest of times, a rebellious yet grounded spirit Lee Chang-dongs films are more important than ever.
With only six features directed in the span of twenty-four years, to have made such a huge impact on me and other lovers of his work is pretty awesome. To unsettle his government and strive for change is pretty awesome. And to have such a powerful way with words is also pretty awesome. So there’s a reason that Lee Chang-dong is worth a watch. He’s interested in 'The Great Hungry', the meaning of this life, the desire to gain understanding about the world and societies we have constructed and all that hinders those with the desire for clarification. And he does this through amazing character studies, examining those on the fringes of societies and explores their perception of the world.
I’ve talked about Burning at great length in a previous article, 'The Great Hungry': The Debilitating Rage of the 21st Century in Burning, but I here I want to divulge why it’s worth going back and uncovering the films of this amazing director. Let’s see if you can’t find a new favourite among this the five masterful works I talk about today, an attempt to understand the complexities of the marvellous melodramas of Lee Chang-dong.
Green Fish (1997)
'... do you remember back then? Can you remember back then?' - Mak-dong
Lee’s first feature is a poignant character study in the guise of a crime drama, exploring a soldiers return to his hometown, Ilsan, only to find dramatic change. Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu playing the role with humanity and timidity) is unsettled to see that the fields and rice paddies have been eradicated and replaced with high rise flats; his mother now works as a housemaid and struggles to make a living while taking care of his eldest brother who is mentally disabled. Meanwhile his other siblings have moved out, one sells eggs, another is a hostess and the other is a drunken detective with a violent streak. Mak-dong wishes nothing more than for his family to be together again, running a family business and to be happy. When he tells his brother this, he replies; how would any of them make a living?
It is here the story heads to Seoul, and the criminal underworld holds out its enticing hand. Here Mak-dong is recruited; a thug and a fond favourite of the gangs boss ‘Big Brother’. Throughout Mak-dongs naivety is preyed upon, a country boy who has never experienced the harsh realities of a metropolitan world. Economic discrimination and political corruption is rife and a sense of ‘community’ is found through the criminal underbelly of the civilised world. Meanwhile, Lee explores the pollution of his lead through this world and his own sexual/romantic awakening with ‘Big Brothers’ woman, lounge singer and victim of circumstance, Mi-ae. This love-triangle exposes the hopelessness of their world and the sacrifice the good must make in order for survival.
For a first feature, Green Fish has become highly influential to filmmakers. It has been spoofed in countless productions in Korea, with memorable moments such as the phone booth scene and the train scene. A tragic tale of a repressive political climate driving the desperate into the ground, Lee’s themes are laid out for us. He established his voice here and unlike his contemporaries is highly motivated by naturalism over eccentricity and surrealism. Because of this, the film feels sombre, a poetic noir. To choose a gangster flick as his first feature proved perfect for audiences as it garnered wide acclaim whilst boldly exposing a deeper need for social/political discussion. Lee’s work starts off brilliant and only gets better with revisits.
Peppermint Candy (2000)
Young-ho: It's really strange. It's defintely the first time I've been here but it seems like I've been here before.
Sun-im: They say when you feel this, we've seen it in our dreams before. Young-ho, I hope it was a good dream.'
Sometimes Lee can be scathing in his depiction of Korean society. When watching his films one cannot always determine if he sees a possibility of change on the horizon, but his haunting attempts to understand the meaning of life and the injustice of this life are undoubtedly hypnotic works of cinema. No film feels quite so full of despair and rage, however, as Peppermint Candy.
The film opens with a suicide. Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu is genuinely incredible in this role) stands before an oncoming train and screams ‘I want to go back!’. In reverse chronological order, we encounter significant events across twenty years that drove the man to his suicidal state. In these flashbacks, seven in all, we witness the student demonstrations of the early 1980’s that resulted in the Gwangju Massacre (a tragedy in which students, who were against Martial Law, were fired upon, beaten and raped by government troops), of which Yong-ho is traumatised by what he sees. Furthermore, we see the unsettling result of the military governments influence in the 1980’s in which police brutality and oppression increases, something Yong-ho partakes in as a young police officer himself consumed by cynicism. Finally, the film also reflects on the economic crash of the Asian Financial Crisis of the early 1990’s which greatly impacts Yong-ho.
Yong-ho is a bad father, a disgraceful husband and an abhorrent person. Each event strips essences of Yong-ho’s humanity and masculinity, yet it is heart-breaking that a man so scarred by his past traumas must cling and identify so profoundly with what came before that the future is unreachable. He is forced to imitate the exact crimes that drove him to the very being he becomes in order to conform to the government ideal of masculinity and subordination, reflected in the requirement of national service to a military that was then encourage brutalising innocent civilians. It is these acts that drive him from his first love, the woman he regrets treating poorly the most, as though by these events he has been tainted and that she will be also. Lee opens the uncomfortable discussion of insubordination; that to fit in that social climate, in the rally of the moment one must sink to the most abhorrent. A civilised society can enforce such a notion and encourage it for fear of being bullied and ostracised, can hardly be considered civilised.
The consequences of the injustice reflect not only upon the one man’s experiences but the loss of innocence of a nation. Yong-ho is an anti-hero, in many ways unlikable with the film only making mild excuses for the way he is, but the character himself is a representation of the taint that dwells within all who have endured such circumstance. It’s devastating with scenes that will haunt long after the conclusion. Peppermint Candy is Lee’s angriest film, but an amazing sophomore effort for such an inexperienced filmmaker.
'I want to sing happily, become whatever there is... just for you' - If I Were, An Chi-hwan
What always impresses me about Lee is how familiar his characters are, and regardless of his exploration of Korean society, his films are incredibly universal. I’m not sure if this is something to find despairing, but to have a voice so candid in an industry that often desires to wrap issues in to neat packages and move onto the next is refreshing. Lee doesn’t let go, he explores further and digs deeper.
All who have watched and loved Oasis can agree that this is one truly heart-breaking story. He returns to the topic of disabilities in this film that follows the difficult romance of Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyong-gu again, in an equally challenging role) a mentally disabled man and a woman with sere cerebral palsy, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri in a truly impressive and well-researched performance – she previously appeared in Lee’s Peppermint Candy). Having just finished serving a jail sentence for involuntary manslaughter, Jong-du’s family failed to tell him that they had moved, only coming in contact again when a misunderstanding at a restaurant (Jong-du is incredibly naïve to the simple mechanics of daily life, ordering a meal he has no money to pay for) leads to police involvement. Meanwhile Gong- ju, the daughter of the man he killed, is currently living on her own, left in the care of her neighbours by her brother who is using her disability to let a subsidised apartment, pretending that she lives there. The circumstances leading up to their relationship are challenging but harder still are the troubling treatment the two characters received from the families and society.
Lee challenges the audience’s perceptions of mental and physical disabilities and forces us to understand the world from their point of view, as harrowing and soul-destroying as it is. Because of the circumstance these characters are born with, their families neglect and abuse their own familial rights and believe it to be some great sacrifice. In fact, Gong-ju and Jong-du are able to lead fulfilling lives once together, experiencing joy and excitement when alone, understanding of one another’s restrictions and catering to that perfectly. Lee uses any elements of surrealism – a very unusual and rare thing indeed - in these fantasies of Gong-ju, imagining a world where she is free from her disability and able to stand with, hold, dance and be with Jong-du. The most revealing and moving of these when she sings If I Were by An Chi-hwan to Jong-du, on the subway platform. Their fantasy is tainted by the ignorant people around them. The lack of understanding on these parts is handled masterfully by Lee, not over-exaggerated but all too recognisable. A cruel turn of phrase here, micro-manipulations, a denial of service in a restaurant and condescension over a family dinner is enough to leave ones blood boiling. The polices handling of Jang-du is the perfect display of wilful ignorance, whilst Gong-ju is treated as a simple child, never taking the time to understand what she is fully capable of saying. Society robs these two of voices but through each other they find a common tongue.
In Oasis, Lee is calling out a culture willing to marginalise those who do not fit their ideal of perfection under the rug. It was though his films that I was able to see disabilities depicted in Korean cinema, only now seeing newer productions doing the same. Lee attempts to restore the voices of those with disabilities, allowing them places in stories that do not mock or demonise them in some way. Even through the hardships of Gong-ju and Jang-du’s relationship, we a see the glimmers of something that is not quite hope. You’ll never be able to look at the shadows that creep across your bedroom wall at night the same way again.
Secret Sunshine (2007)
'...we don't live by meaning' - Jong-chan
A study of grief and faith is what Lee tackles next. Considering it was the film he wanted to tell most simply, without the visual language, structure-bending and magical-realist elements of his previous films, of course Secret Sunshine becomes something altogether more complex than that narratively speaking. This became the exact reason why I struggled to write about this particular film. In Secret Sunshine, Lee delves into a love story between a woman and god, the hubris of a flawed mother by vanity and the complicated question of faith. It’s a topic that I struggle to explore myself, and which the director manages to do with class and gentility, where he could have devolved into another vicious study of the flaws of religion. Instead, Lee inspects organised religion as a separate entity to faith, a key component to what is a simple, but emotionally and spiritually complex narrative.
Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon in a powerful performance that truly displays her range as she dissects the capabilities of emotions and despair) and her son move to Miryang (in Chinese it translates to Secret Sunchine), a conservative town where her late husband was born. On the way their car breaks down, and a local mechanic Kim Jong-chan (Played by the ever brilliant and down-to-earth Song Kang-ho, his second Lee film after Green Fish) comes out to help her. He tells her more about the town and quickly becomes smitten with the woman, gradually shaping himself into a reliable presence in her otherwise reserved life. Wanting to start afresh, Shin-ae opens a piano school and begins to enquire around town for a plot of land, with no intention of buying any but to appear well-off to the locals. She is scrutinised by the people of the town, struggling to fit in. And then her son is abducted. He is held for ransom and eventually murdered, and this sends the grieving woman down a spiral of torment and sorrow as she searches for healing and answers in the wake of the tragedy that that bears down on her life.
Shin-ae is one of Lee’s most complex heroines. Headstrong, she is ostracised from her family although it is never really explored. It is a family member, one of few interactions with anyone other than her brother, who tells her that she is heartless (for not crying at her sons funeral) and that everyone she comes into contact with dies. She can be manipulative, mercurial and down-right blunt. A loving mother, she lacks this sociable open-ness with others in her life, recognisably aloof around the strangers until she begins to build her lie. She also seems to lack the self-awareness; this leads her to be disliked early on by the town’s people. She displeases a shop owner when she suggests the woman redecorate to attract clientele and upsets the pharmacist, a devout evangelical Christian, who urges her to visit the church to seek comfort in God. Furthermore, the character is prone to blind-siding the truth as can be seen when she discusses her late husband and the infidelities he partook in before his death. Shin-ae is in denial about these facts, to immortalise her husband as the loving man that would, possibly, ease her grief. These aspects of her personality play a role in her eventual tragedies but make for a fascinating study of a woman seeking meaning in her life.
That being said, all that she knows is taken from her. The place of the mother, a role she identifies as and something she continues to be despite her loss leaving a gaping hole in her heart and life. So her quest for comfort leads her to the church, in possibly one of Lees most upsetting scenes, an incredibly immersive and minimal scene filled with more human despair than is possible to contain. The solace she finds in the church is much like the early giddiness of romance, blissful, ‘like falling in love’ she admits in a meeting with some of the parishioners. Now she fits in. And with it brings the most joy we’ve seen from the character through the whole film and yet the smile is wide and empty. Her tryst with God is brief, a form of escape before the cruel reality of faith. As she believes his love is for her alone, God has reached out and absolved the bad before she has been able to. And so her battle with the limits of divinity and humanity – her overwhelming discovery and loss of faith consume her, followed by another wave of grief in the absence God.
Through Shin-ae’s story from believer to avenger – a series of events that lead to some rather heart-breaking and vindictive acts, very human and very real - Lee is questioning the existence of god, or more so belief. He never extends his power as filmmaker, as a weapon against organised religion but certainly highlights the shallowness and hypocrisy’s of the commercialism of faith. It is not so much insincerity that the organisation offers Shin-ae but an unsettling, unwavering devoutness that overlooks the complexities of the human condition. It is exactly this blind-siding that Shin-ae craves in order to understand her life, just as she does with her husband, and it is this giving over of her heart and mind to religion that she is able to bottle up the agonising pain she is experiencing. The Pharmacist states that faith is for unhappy people but instead it becomes a diversion for Shin-ae.
Ultimately, the director is interested in the power of faith, the experience of encountering God late in life and the false comfort it provides for a woman in need of much more grounding in her life. At the start of the film, when Shin-ae upsets the Pharmacist, the woman tells her that she is the sort of person who only believes in what she sees to which Shin-ae responds that she can’t always believe in that. So finding faith in what she can’t see or in the lies she tells herself and others (both religiously and for the imitation of wealth and culture at the start of the film) is not where we should search. We should find comfort and faith in those around us.
The character of Jong-chan serves as Shin-ae’s self-less guardian, remaining a presence in her life far more precious than any divine entity. He is a human being, equally flawed. Hardly the brightest, or the most handsome, he still expects nothing in return from Shin-ae except to be there for her whenever she needs him. She take shim for granted throughout the film, most of the times finding him an irritating presence. But in Jong-chan, Lee paints a very real human necessity. So in contrast to the opening shot of the film on a beautiful wide blue sky, of which Shin-ae repeatedly finds herself staring up to, as though searching for reason and answers, Lee concludes his film with a shot of the ground and the patch of sunlight on the dirt. A reminder of the things in front of us, the faith in the ground beneath our feet, in those we find in the unlikeliest of place and in those that have always been right there with us.
“Can I convey…
the confession I dared not make?
Will time pass and roses fade?
Now it's time to say goodbye… To promises that never came...” – Agnes Song
The film that is perhaps Lee’s true masterpiece, it certainly displays how much he has evolved as a storytller and filmmaker. Lee tackles some hard topics once again, this time mortality, the corruption within privilege and responsibility of youth. I suppose that doesn’t quite capture what Poetry is about but they certainly mar the world of the protagonist, exposing her to some compromising realities. There is a beautiful message that one can begin to understand the world through poetry, and that beautiful words are capable in all of us if we tried, if we had the right sensibilities. But Lee is also peeling back another layer of society that reveals some nasty truths. So through our protagonist, he forces us to confront them and with it takes us on a journey in which truly makes her reflect on her place on this earth.
A woman in her sixties, Yanh Mi-ja (Played by South-Korean acting legend Yoon Jeong-hee who truly embraces a nuanced and tender performance), has developed an interest in poetry. But she is becoming forgetful, displaying the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. She is sole-carer to her irresponsible, spoilt grandson, and works as a carer for a well-off elderly man who has had a stroke and amongst this she decides to enrol in poetry class. Meanwhile, the body of a teenage girl, Agnes, has recovered from the river. The girl’s diary is found, and it is soon revealed that the girl was gang-raped over a period of six months by classmates. One of them being Mi-ja’s grandson. The boys fathers come together and with the help of the school and the police force try to encourage Agnes’s mother to settle, in fear of their sons future. Meanwhile, Mi-ja seems to struggle to comprehend the events as her mind deteriorates, unable to find inspiration for a poem and met with silence from her grandson.
Based on true events, of a prolonged gang-rape by group of teenage boys on their female classmate that led to the eventual suicide of the victim, Lee chooses to explore the events from the perspective of an aging woman. There are elements that criticise the upbringing of young men that results in sexism and shocking corruption between schools and the police to cover up heinous behaviour. Lee exposes, through his multi-faceted storytelling, an element of society that demands that the wicked shall not be punished for the deeds, instead to use the weak, the vulnerable and the less defenceless as stepping stones for their own success. With this in mind, it is all the more unsettling, when the fathers attempt to soften the grieving mother using Mi-ja to soften her win her around to a settlement. To infiltrate that breach of trust, as women becomes all too frightening. Under the supervision of these men, the women are listless. How can the future boys matter more than that of an underprivileged young girl? Is she really protecting the future? Or the families own sense of pride for having raised such boys.
But that isn’t all. Lee’s film, possibly indirectly, contemplates our final years on earth and our responsibility to the youth. Mi-ja must acknowledge that the responsibility that she (and her daughter) had in raising her grandson made it acceptable for him to partake in the criminal act. But the culture is equally guilty in this regard, and so Lee is expanding on the sense of despair when regarding the teachers, the police force and the families of the boys and engaging it with the community as a whole who choose to bury their heads.
Lee doesn’t make the problem go away. That is not his place as the storyteller. Moral outrage is the right stance for the audience, but that won’t undo what happened. Instead he, strips all that away and has Mi-ja reflect on her own mortality in this world, struggling to find the beauty in it that will help shape the words she must put on paper. So Lee refuses to follows the melodrama of an ailing woman in neither her dying days nor a family drama as she comes to terms with the family she has raised and will eventually leave behind. He poses the question of what to do in the remaining time, but never offers us an answer to the central conflict of the story that resulted in the tragic death of Agnes. With each passing minute, Mi-ja’s troubles play on her mind, the irony of her disease that she cannot forget what is happening around her in those agonising moments. So she must make the most of the minute. To enjoy the beauty of the land around her, of the leaves in the tree and the flowers blooming outside, as the fathers argue about the future of their sons. She has not forgotten to look up at the trees and at the sky. She is human after all.
After all I’ve discussed, there is so much more to divulge in the works of Lee Chang-dong. As mentioned before, Lee stands apart from his contemporaries, and I hope this article has begun to explore how this has come to be. The feat he achieves in the performances he uncovers from some of Korea’s best actors enhances the stories, with them willing to push the boundaries of their own star power to capture truth on screen. His literary style of storytelling makes for the complex character studies, placing them amongst political and social criticism, revealing injustice and truths in a humanistic way. He’s the filmmaker we need now more than ever, who can acknowledge the grey areas of people’s lives, painting complexities in all his characters. The Anti-heros are human beings; ‘anti’ for all the flaws we find in ourselves. Meanwhile, he opens our eyes to all the unfairness in the world, avoiding lavish extremities and visual flares to get his point across. He refuses to distract from life. After writing this article, I’m beginning to understand him more, but when it comes to Lee’s work it feels like it will take a lifetime to truly begin to comprehend the magnitude of his stories. And not on a social scale. For it’s his expanse of emotions. To seek poetry in the mysteries of the world we inhabit and to capture the beauty amongst the devastation of mankind, to give voices to the people on the fringe of society. These are all immaculate things to achieve. But to be a master in humanity is Lee’s greatest triumph.