b. July 4, 1954, Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
By just about any measure, Lee Chang-dong is one of the principal architects of the director-driven Korean independent cinema that has enjoyed much critical acclaim around the world since the millennium. His initial foray into filmmaking was as the co-writer and assistant director of To the Starry Island (Geu seome gago shibda, 1993), the first film completed by the first independent production company in Korea. (1) Lee is also one of contemporary Korean film’s most laureled and versatile practitioners. Though relatively small, his directorial output boasts a considerable range of styles, from the gangster drama with a cool distance from genre’s affective conventions (Green Fish [Chorok Mulgogi], 1997) to a fresh brand of magical realism (Oasis [Oasiseu], 2002) to the deeply empathetic but visually stark realism of his most recent work, Poetry (Shi, 2010). If his aesthetic has varied greatly, his key themes have been steadfastly consistent. Trauma –a quintessential theme of modern Korean literature and, to a lesser degree, film –is almost always at hand, but rather than allow his characters simply to wallow in their misery, Lee draws them into situations that make them search, often futilely, for the meaning of life.
His unique approach to filmmaking stems to a large degree from the unconventional road that led him to, and in one important period, away from the métier. Born in 1954 in Daegu, considered the most conservative city in South Korea, to left-leaning, lower middle-class parents, Lee Chang-dong first tapped into his creativity as a writer. After graduating with a degree in literature from Kyungpook University, he intermittently worked as a high school teacher, theatre director, short story writer, and newspaper columnist. Though he was well known as a literary figure in Korea, his work in theatre was actually much more extensive, and his films manifest this wealth of experience working with actors.
Lee began publishing stories in 1982, and in 1992 won the Hanguk Ilbo Munhak (The Korea Times Literary) Prize for the short story collection There’s a Lot of Shit in Nokcheon. (2) For our purposes, the title story Nokcheon serves as a useful precursor to his films in its reflection of the repressive political climate of the South Korea led by Park Chung-hee in which Lee came of age. The bloody end to this era will serve as a kind of telos for Lee’s film Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang, 1999), but here what is uniquely on display is the effects of authoritarianism on the Korean family unit. A police inspector tracks down the protagonist, a low-ranking professor, to tell him that his previously long-lost brother was a dissident and key organizer of student protests against the regime and, as such, should be kept at arm’s length. Although no such authority figures surface in Lee’s films, which are mostly set in the more liberal present, he constantly asks how free the modern citizen really is.
Another small difference between Lee’s films and the short story Nokcheon is that his films tend to take regular, working folk as their protagonists. According to Kyung Hyun Kim, this could be attributed to the influence of director Park Kwang-su, who specialized in realistic depictions of blue-collar Koreans, rather than middle- and upper-class people that had tended to be the focus of Korean films for the previous few decades. (3) The influence of Park Kwang-su on Lee is crucial, though it has gone almost entirely overlooked. (4)
Park, whom Lee met through the writer Choe In-soek, similarly came from a background in another medium, painting. Eager to be introduced to Im Cheol-u, who wrote what would become the source novel of To the Starry Island, Park first called upon Lee to make the connection and then, after Im wrote a preliminary adaptation, asked Lee not only to revise it but also, eventually, to serve as the assistant director. (5) The combined experiences of working on this and Park’s subsequent film, A Single Spark (Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, 1995), in the same capacity, gave Lee the confidence in filmmaking that led him to try his hand at directing after one fateful last stab at novel writing. (6) The importance of Park’s mentorship is further worth highlighting in light of the productive relationships that Lee has had with his own crew. For instance, Park Jung-bum, the assistant director of Poetry, proceeded to make an auspicious directorial debut, The Journals of Musan (Musanilgi, 2011), that announced him as an important new voice for Korean cinema.
To the Starry Island is particularly significant in Lee’s oeuvre as the only film that refers directly to the most decisive moment in modern Korean history: the Korean War. It tells the story of a man pulled back to his hometown to bury the father of one of his close friends. This death forces the protagonist and the townspeople alike to reflect on a wartime massacre that the father orchestrated.
A Single Spark similarly reflects on the past through a more contemporary lens. We learn about Jeon Tae-il, a worker who martyred himself for his convictions about factory labour reform in 1970, through his biographer who is living five years later under the brutal Park Chung-hee regime at its peak. Though the films are more narratively driven and explicit in their political orientations than Lee’s own, they share an interest in memory and taboo subjects rarely broached in Korean cinema, at least with this level of intelligence. Lee’s complex politics help to explain how this was possible. Though obviously sympathetic to the proletarian struggle of Jeon Tae-il, he was also especially suspicious of the far left, having seen its adverse effects on family members (particularly his leftist father, who for reasons unclear never held a job). (7) His balanced perspective makes references in Peppermint Candy to such historical events as the Kwangju Massacre, the use of torture to extract information from political dissidents in the mid-1980s, and the 1997 IMF economic crisis particularly compelling. When he critiques the right– perhaps most pronouncedly in Secret Sunshine, set in a conservative small town close to Lee’s own hometown– he forgoes over-politicization and appeals to our hearts.
As in Nokcheon before it and Peppermint Candy after it, Lee’s directorial debut Green Fish (1997) sees him in his mode as a chronicler of the marginal zones of Seoul – specifically Ilsan and Yeoungdeungpo. The film also revolves around the director’s trademark fascination with sexual politics, particularly desire that cannot be satisfactorily enacted. It opens with its protagonist, Mak-dong, getting beaten up on the train ride home from the military by a group of guys whom he chastises for hitting on an innocent girl walking by. At home, he is dismayed to see his mother is degrading herself as a domestic worker and his daughter is working as a sleazy caféhostess. An instant attraction to Mi-ae, who is dating a crime boss, embroils him in the gang that will only deny him his love object and humiliate him, as in the scene in which they make him strip in a quarry in the cold of night. The film suggests that any resistance to the masses, regardless of moral imperatives, makes one a public enemy. One of the gang members (Song Kang-ho, in his first speaking role) nicknames Mak-dong “Viet Cong.”Like Jeon Tae-il, the labour activist who is the hagiographic subject of A Single Spark, Mak-dong is cast as the enemy in a society hell-bent on economic advancement.
Peppermint Candy, Lee’s sophomore feature, brought him back to a dark event in recent Korean history, but the incident’s positioning as the climax of a narrative told in reverse simultaneously restrains and diffuses its place in the film. The now famous first sequence shows Kim Young-ho, an anxious, desperate man, wander through a picnic gathering of childhood friends, climb onto adjacent railroad tracks, and scream out, “I want to go back!”in anticipation of a train to come and end his life. The film then moves backwards through his last two decades, like the train we move with at the end of each subsequent chapter. (8)
What particularly distinguishes Lee from other contemporary South Korean filmmakers taking on serious subject matter is that he never monumentalizes the past. Even though the ersatz climax of Peppermint Candy coincides with the cataclysmic moment of the Republic of Korea’s recent history, the Kwangju Massacre, it is not referred to in any way that would make it clear to foreign viewers. Furthermore, neither these scenes nor any others are struck with the type of musical or cinematographic bombast that has drawn similar cinematic meditations on time like Memento or Irreversible such detractors. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the sublime final scene in which Young-ho walks through the same valley in which he will kill himself. He remarks to his sweetheart Sun-im– whose resemblance to a girl he accidentally shoots to death at Kwangju will serve as his life’s defining trauma– how he is overcome with a feeling of déjà vu. The moment is beautiful not just for its affect and visual design but also because it confirms the film’s anti-teleological view of history. For Lee, our experience of time is cyclical, and any pat narrative of causality is counterfeit.
The years in between his next two films, Oasis (incidentally the name of a bar in front of which a major fight scene in Green Fish breaks out)and Secret Sunshine served as a crucial turning point for Lee in two ways. Firstly, he saw his visibility skyrocket when President Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Lee had campaigned, appointed him Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003. This quickly got him nicknamed “the Korean Malraux,”which in a characteristic bout of humility, Lee dismissed. André Malraux’s opinions were welcomed and accepted by the French public in a way Lee’s never could be in twenty-first century Korea, where the cultural minister does not hold as much weight. (9) Secondly, the experience seems to have made him less cynical, except perhaps about Korean cinema’s market conditions, given the fierce opposition with which his proposal of a screen quota for independent films was met. Rather, he emerged as a more empathetic filmmaker. Ever sensitive to art’s communicative possibilities, he resolved to make simpler films, less caught up in aesthetic flourishes. He also shifted his focus from the rage and anxiety of male protagonists to the complexities of female characters, which critics complained had been heretofore conspicuously left out of this work. Critics rightfully lamented that his first two films had presented only cursory representations of women and, in his third, an abject one.
Secret Sunshine took its inspiration from a short story by Yi Chong-jun, who also wrote the source novel for Im Kwon-Taek’s much-lauded Sopyonje (1993). It deals with a newly widowed mother, Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), who moves with her boy Jun from Seoul to the small town of Milyang (literally “secret sunshine”) where her husband grew up. From the very first scene, in which their car breaks down on the way there, their doom is apparent, but Lee refuses to settle for straightforward neorealist melodrama. The result is a deceptively plain style often teetering between tragicomedy and horror.
Consider, for instance, the early scene in which mother comes home and calls out to Jun. Her son nowhere to be seen, she sits down on the patio and begins to cry. Like a gremlin, Jun then creeps out from under a chair in the periphery of the frame; his creaturely noisemaking dismantles her pantomime of despair and she chases after him. The moment is unsettling precisely because the possibility of such a tragedy as his disappearance is so tangible. What other living director so excels at such simple yet affectively profound scenes? Who else would end the same film with a pan away from its protagonist to a banal still life of a puddle, some locks of her hair, and neglected household supplies?
If the image that closed Secret Sunshine is a synecdoche of the film’s interest in the earthly and mundane, the one that opens Poetry (2010)is a metaphor for Lee’s overarching conception of art as a nimble shield from evil.The film, Lee’s most recent to date, starts with a shot that roves through a valley –somewhat reminiscent of the one in which Peppermint Candy begins and ends –to pause on the corpse of a schoolgirl floating in the river. That the title card appears alongside this morbid image encapsulates both Lee’s continual resistance to prettiness and the film’s pursuit of the divine in dark places.
Memory has often been an important theme for Lee– from the childhood memories that play a key role in Nokcheon to the elegy for amnesia implicit in Peppermint Candy – but in Poetry it takes centre stage. The film is one of the rare character studies to focus exclusively on a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, although Mi-ja has yet to experience substantial memory loss. Remembrance of things past, in fact, fuels her poetry writing, her main respite from her difficult life as a caregiver to an elderly man and guardian to her grandson. The boy’s own past, repeatedly participating in the gang rape of a classmate, becomes Mi-ja’s tragic source of inspiration in a scene in which she presents “My life’s beautiful moment” to her class.
Though an acclaimed writer himself, Lee chooses not to represent the official literary scene of South Korea but instead the amateurs whose poems, though cliché-ridden, he never once looks down upon in any way. This is also the apotheosis of Lee’s fierce anti-elitism and empathy. Even the class clown of sorts, who always writes dirty, cavalier poems, is treated with a rare depth of empathy. When Mi-ya complains to a friend that the clown seems to be disrespecting poetry, her friend tells her that he really has a good heart, and is only living in the countryside because his reporting of corruption in the Seoul Police Department led to his demotion.
Like Peppermint Candy, Poetry ends by circling back to the landscape marked by death in the first scene of the film. In voiceover, we hear an excerpt from the diary of Agnes, the girl whose repeated rape led her to take her own life. Though not framed as such, these lines are the most poetic in the whole film. Before cutting to the gently rippling river, Lee gives us a close-up of her face, which in the first shot faced down, lifeless in the water. Though it may be crass, it seems impossible not to mention the significance of the fact that, in between Secret Sunshine and Poetry, Lee’s ally and former colleague Roh Moo-hyun had committed suicide. Reading the synchronicity as allegory would probably be wrongheaded, but it is certain that Lee had death on his mind while making the film.
Almost all of Lee Chang-dong’s main characters, though, are somehow on the verge of a health crisis, if not death. And perhaps more so than any other prominent art filmmaker today, Lee has taken a special interest in disability. In Green Fish, Mak-tong’s oldest brother is a severe victim of epilepsy. Poetry is a story largely about the onset of a terminal disease. There is also one brilliant shot toward the end of Secret Sunshine when Shin-ae eggs her pharmacist on to drive her to a field and make love to her. As she lies down on the ground, Lee frames the sex scene upside down, with her arm out of sight as if she has been disfigured. At this point in the film, of course, she is so bereaved that her trauma has visibly crippled her in a sense.
But Oasis is Lee’s ultimate contribution to the topic. It takes Lee’s interest in taboo romances to its extreme by imagining a relationship between a woman with severe cerebral palsy and a mildly retarded, but still quite capable, man who killed her father. He initially meets her when, released from jail, he goes to repent for his murder. After a series of false starts, they begin to find solace in each other against all odds. That the film is excruciating to watch is precisely the point; nary a viewer could imagine loving either of these characters, and so Lee attempts to show how society tries to deny the abject such a basic human need. Like Secret Sunshine, Oasis shows what happens when, due to extenuating circumstances, characters’plans to forgive or to expiate, respectively, can’t come to fruition. Lee’s showing what these characters do instead is not only a clever narrative strategy of deferral, but also a unique ethical move. His brilliance is the suggestion that predetermined strategies for overcoming huge obstacles in one’s relationship with others are not just fictions, but also fundamental disjunctions with reality in which the complexity of interpersonal relationships defies rationality.
For the cool, analytic side of his work Lee often draws comparisons to Wim Wenders. (10) But given that both these filmmakers were born in countries recently cut into two, and whose filmmaking almost by necessity reflects upon the nation and nationalism, the comparison seems too easy. His ability to move beyond details and extract the deeper human truths from history recalls the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. In his unusual sensitivity to the nuances and dissonances of the human condition, Lee warrants discussion in the same breath as Mike Leigh.
Lee Chang-dong’s universe is without a doubt one of tragedy and despair. Yet many correctly note his seemingly indefatigable faith in the human spirit, verging at times on sentimentality. Even in quite literally hopeless situations, his characters maintain a deep self-integrity, which in the most extreme cases might call for suicide. If love is the core concern of Cassavetes, one of Lee’s avowed influences, and systems of belief (and their disavowal) that of another inspiration, Bresson, then everyday perseverance serves as Lee’s greatest interest. It is in this respect, above all, that he is a quintessentially Korean artist.
Green Fish (Chorok Mulgogi) (1997)
Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang) (1999)
Oasis (Oasiseu, 2002)
Secret Sunshine (Milyang) (2007)
Poetry (Shi) (2010)
To the Starry Island (Geu seome gago shibda) (1993, dir. Park Kwang-su) co-writer and assistant director
A Single Spark (Jeon Tae-il) (1995, dir. Park Kwang-su) co-writer
Never Forever (2007, dir. Gina Kim) producer
A Brand New Life (Yeohaengja) (2009, dir. Ounie Lecomte) producer
Hwayi: A Monster Boy (Hwayi: Gwimuleul samkin ahyi, 2013, dir. Jang Joon-hwan) producer
A Girl at My Door (Doohee-ya) (2014, dir. July Jung) producer
Books by Lee Chang-dong:
소지 (Possession). Seoul: Munhak kwa Chisoongsa, 1987.
녹촌에는똥이많다(There’s a Lot of Shit in Nokcheon). Seoul: Munhak kwa Chisongsa, 1992. French trans.: Nokcheon: suivi d’un éclat dans le ciel. Paris: Cadre Vert, 2005.
집념 (Tenaciousness). Seoul: Ch’aek mandunun Jip, 1996.
“The Dreaming Beast.”Trans. Heinz Insu Fenkl. Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 1 (2007): 317–37.
Sally Chivers, “Seeing the Apricot: A Disability Perspective on Alzheimer’s in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry.”In Different Bodies: Essays on Disability in Film and Television, ed. Marja Evelyn Mogk (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013): 65-74.
Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient, “Forgetting to Remember, Remembering to Forget: The Politics of Memory and Modernity in the Fractured Films of Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo.”In Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances Gateward (New York: SUNY Press, 2007): 115-140.
Heinz Insu Fenkl, “On the Narratology of Lee Chang-dong: A Long Translator’s Note.”Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 1 (2007): 338-356.
Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Kyung Hyun Kim, Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Yeong-jin Kim, Lee Chang-dong. Trans. Park Sang-hee. Seoul: Seoul Selection, 2007.
Korean Writers: The Novelist. Seoul: Korean Literature Translation Institute/Minumsa, 2005.
Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, “Peppermint Candy: The Will Not to Forget.”In New Korean Cinema, ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005): 159-169.
Todd McGowan. “Affirmation of the Lost Object: Peppermint Candy and the end of Progress.”Symploke 15, nos. 1–2 (2007): 170–89.
Tony Rayns, Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Directors, ed. Simon Field. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1995.
Zachary Sng, “Syncretic Sunshine: Metaphor in the Cinema of Lee Chang-dong.”Diacritics 41:2 (2013): 6-30.
Kate E. Taylor-Jones, Rising sun, divided land: Japanese and South Korean filmmakers. London: Wallflower Press, 2013.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Green Fish by John Fidler. http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/green-fish/
Peppermint Candy by Rahul Hamid. http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/peppermint-candy/
Oasis by Marc Raymond. http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/oasis/
Between Innocence and Experience: Lee Chang Dong’s Secret Sunshine by Adrian Danks.
Robert Kohler, Cinema Scope
Dennis Lim, “Secret Sunshine: A Cinema of Lucidity.”
Marc Raymond, “‘It’s better not to lie, but it’s hard to stimulate the audience otherwise’: realism and melodrama in Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine.”Jump Cut.
David Walsh, “Dirt in the Soul: Green Fish.”
David Wilentz, “The Unseen and the Unspoken: The Films of Lee Chang-dong.”
1. Tony Rayns, Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Directors.
2. Korean Writers: The Novelist (Seoul: Korean Literature Translation Institute, 2005), 156. The French translation, the only book-length collection of Lee’s literary work in a Western language, sanitizes the title by shortening it, tout court, to Nokcheon.
3. The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema,43.
4. Even in the one book-length study of Lee, the analysis is as cursory as “he has little in common with Park.” Yeong-Jin Kim, 21.
5. Ironically, this comes from the ibid book, 90-91.
6. While working on the script for A Single Spark, Lee’s computer crashed and two in-progress novels were lost in addition to the biography Tenaciousness,which he went on to rewrite. See Yeong-Jin Kim, 92.
7. Ibid, 87.
8. In actuality, these shots are taken from a train in forward motion but played in reverse, which careful viewers will notice in one instance when a mother and child are seen running (otherwise inexplicably) backward alongside the train.
9. Yeong-Jin Kim, 7.
10. Eg, “On the Narratology of Lee Chang-dong,” 342.