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Lee Chang-dong Retrospective: The Realistically Melodramatic Cinema of the "Marginalized" - Part 1


I make films for the kind of people that are characters in "Oasis" or "Poetry".

Considered by many as the greatest contemporary Korean filmmaker, Lee Chang-dong is a truly rare case in the peninsula's cinema, both due to his impressive filmography and the rather unusual (unconventional if you prefer) path he followed in his life, which brought him from a teacher's position to the seat of the Minister of Culture. Let us take things from the beginning though.

(Since his films have been analyzed to the fullest, I have included only my personal comments on each one)

Lee Chang-dong was born July 4, 1954 in Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, a city considered by many as the most conservative (and rightist) in the country, to lower middle class parents, who were leaning to the left, particularly his father, who was an idealist who never had a job, thus forcing his wife to work hard in order to support the family. On the other hand, his family came from noble class of the old Korea, and this contradiction, of growing up in a ruined, ex-noble family with communist ties shaped his character quite significantly.

He graduated in 1981 with a degree in Korean Literature from Kyungpook National University in Daegu, where he spent much of his time in the theater, writing and directing plays. After a period of teaching Korean Language in high school, he established himself as a renowned novelist with his first novel Chonri in 1983. In 1992, he won the the Hanguk Ilbo Munhak (The Korea Times Literary) Prize for the short story collection "There's a Lot of Shit in Nokcheon". However, and despite the fact that he became famous through his work in literature, his work in theatre was much more extensive, and actually gave him much "equipment" that later helped him as a filmmaker.

Regarding his entry to cinema, I will quote his own words. "Actually at that time, I was in considerable doubt both as a writer and as a person stepping into his late 30s. Perhaps you could say I wanted to punish myself. And so I wanted to do something like hard physical labor, and what I chose was to work as an Assistant Director. Director Park Kwang-soo had just suggested that I do the scenario[script] for "To the Starry Island", and I made a kind of ' dea l' with him to use me as an Assistant Director. Of course at the time, my filmmaking experience was nonexistent and I was in no way qualified to AD. In a way what made me a director today is very much indebted to Park Kwang-soo's gamble to use me as First Assistant Director".

Park, who in 1993 had become the first Korean filmmaker to find his own production company, also came from a background in another medium, painting. Actually, the initial reason for their acquaintance was the fact that Park wanted to meet Im Cheol-u, author of the novel "To the Starry Island" was based upon, and Lee, who already knew him, made the connection. Eventually, Park asked Lee to make the adaptation, and after rejecting his first revision because it was not cinematic enough, he accepted the second and even asked Lee to become one of the assistant directors in the film. On Lee's first day on set, the first AD was fired and he took his place, since he was the oldest among the other assistants. (Source: Kim Young-jin, "Lee Chang-dong", Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).

"To the Starry Island" (1993)

The film moves in two axes. The first one occurs in the present where Moon Jae-goo attempts to bury his father's body on the island on which he was born, with the help of his friend, Kim Cheol, a poet who lives in Seoul. Due to his father's past though, the inhabitants of the island refuse to allow him to do so, despite the fact that he has already bought a plot. Kim Cheol tries to persuade the villagers, while he reminisces about his past, with his memories forming the second axis.

This arc revolves around Ok-nim, a simple-minded girl who is forced to marry an older man, a woman with shamanic powers, and another one who is called "Easy Lay" by the rest of the population due to her promiscuousness. The main point of interest though, is Moon Deok-bae, Jae-goo's father, with the story painting an image of a rather despicable man, who is indifferent towards his son and his sick daughter, unfaithful to his wife, with his behaviour becoming even worse as time passes.

Eventually, and during the war in Korea, the army arrives in the island, and everything changes as the true character of the islanders is revealed, with Moon, once again, being the worst.

Not much of the style that characterized his later works can be found in here, since Lee was quite overwhelmed by the whole experience. However, the film's significance lies with the fact that it is his only work that refers to the Korean war, in a story that presents a comment regarding both the North and the South Forces, although the critique on the latter is much harsher.

The film had another significance in Lee's career, since, during the shooting, he and Dong Bang-woo (he had a small part in the film), whom Lee knew from the theatre since 1982, became good friends. Myung would eventually produce Lee's first directorial work.

Before that though, Lee wrote another script for a movie Park directed, "A Single Spark". During this process, in 1995, disaster struck. His laptop crashed and Lee lost all his data including two novels and the biography of Park In-cheon, CEO and founder of Kumho, named "Teneciousness". Lee had to rewrite everything from scratch (including the bio) in a process that exhausted him.. (Source: Kim Young-jin, "Lee Chang-dong", Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).

Nevertheless, his second collaboration with Park Kwan-soo, was released in November 13, 1995

"A Single Spark" (1995)

Lee's second work as a scriptwriter was a very political film, which focused on Jeon Tae-il, a worker and workers' rights activist who committed suicide by burning himself to death at the age of 22, in protest of the poor working conditions in South Korean factories.

The story revolves around his life and in a secondary axis, five years after his death, in 1975, when law school graduate Kim decides to write a book about Tae-il, in the midst of the worst period of President Park's regime, when political activism was punishable by death. In the present timeframe, Kim, who is also an activist, hides in a room rented by his girlfriend, while he spends most of his days visiting the places Tae-il have been, with the film changing arcs each time, to present the experiences of the deceased in the particular location. Through these flashbacks, Park depicts the awful working conditions in the factories in Seoul, where tuberculosis due to poor or non-existent ventilation, and the enforced injections of amphetamines to keep sleep-deprived workers awake for days in a row in order to work overtime without proper compensation, was the rule.

Tae-il, working as a tailor in one of these sweatshops is "enlightened" after reading a book about labor law and becomes an activist. After a number of efforts to alarm the authorities of the situation in the factories, he turns to the press, with the publication of his stories becoming one of the few successes he experienced until his suicide. In 1975, Kim also has to deal with the authorities, particularly through his girlfriend, who finds herself a victim to violence due to her activist actions.

Lee's script presents the story of Kim with thoroughness and distinct sympathy towards his subject, and while the movie takes the side of the activists, he does not fail in portraying all aspects of the concept, even involving some ill practices of the far left, of which Lee Chang-dong had some experience, as we mentioned in the beginning of the article.

Lee describes his experiences on the sets of these two films and the path that led him to his directorial debut as such: "How I came to be a director results from a few unexpected coincidences. Because I wanted to 'punish myself' I worked very hard on the set, and it seems that made a good impression on some of the staff and cast members that I didn't expect. After that, those people kept suggesting that I become a director, and eventually helped me to debut as one. Of course, it's not as though I had never had the desire to become a director. I had always been curious about the distance between film and reality, and had questions about the apathy of movies (whether commercial movies so-called art films) that were growing farther and farther detached from reality. I wanted to make films that closed the distance a little, between film and reality". (Source:

Apart from Dong Bang-woo, whose 1996-formed production company East Film would eventually produce Lee's debut, Moon Sung-geun, who starred in both films, and Shim Hye-jin who starred in "To the Starry Island", agreed to participate in Lee's first film, along with Yu Yeong-gil, who was the cinematographer in both.

Lee Chang-dong describes the process that led him to "Green Fish": One year before making "Green Fish", I moved [home] to Il-San city, a newly constructed apartment complex at the outskirts of Seoul. The area, previously a general Korean agricultural village, following the wave of urbanization was transformed into one of the biggest modern cities erected near Seoul. In other words, one might say that it became an exemplary space symbolizing the thirty years of continuous modernization and economic development in Korea. As my life unfolded as an inhabitant of this modern space, I started to ask myself questions: the people who lived here before the new city took their living space - what were their dreams? And how could we retrace the memory of them? "Green Fish" can be considered as a transmission of these questions into film.

"Green Fish" (1997)

Mak-dong has just been discharged from the army and returns to his hometown and his shuttered family that includes a single mother, and three brothers, one alcoholic, one handicapped and a very reckless one. While on the train, he helps Mi-ae, a lone woman who is being harassed by thugs, only to find himself without his belongings, beaten and out of the train, but with her red scarf in hand. As he revisits his town only to find that the fields he used to know have turned into a newly-built town, he receives a call that eventually reacquaints him with Mi-ae, who turns out to be a singer and the girlfriend of a crime boss, Tae-gon. Having no alternative, and after getting beaten again, he "allows" Tae-gon to give him a job in a parking lot. Soon, he finds himself being a regular member of the gang, and a favorite of the boss, to the irritation of the previous favorite, Pan-su (Song Kang-ho, in his first speaking role), while he learns of Mi-ae's tragic situation.

Lee Chang-dong's characters are characteristically anti-heroic, but he seems to justify them due to their background. Mak-dong's family is completely shuttered, as so eloquently portrayed in the picnic scene, and with no kind of prospects in life, his association with the organized crime seems like the only exit from his misery. The same applies to Mi-ae, who seems to think that she has no value apart from her association with Tae-gon, and cannot get away from him despite her repeated efforts. Tae-gon also finds himself in binds, as, per his own words, he has crawled to the place he is now, but his past and particularly the people he had to "service" to get where he is now, do not seem to let him go. Eventually, these three miserable lives form a triangle that leads to an inevitable clash to a shuttering conclusion of a dead-end story.

Lee creates a dog-eat-dog world where kindness, compassion and even hope do not seem to exist anywhere, and in that fashion, induces the film with a distinct but not hyperbolic, melodramatic essence. This sense finds its apogee in four scenes: the aforementioned with the picnic, the one where Mak-dong speaks with his handicapped brother on the phone (where the film's title comes up), the one in the abandoned building, and the one in the finale, which manages to close the story with a somewhat hopeful, but still melancholic, note.

The film, despite its unusual premises, was a commercial success and became the eighth highest-attended South Korean film of 1997, kicking off Lee's career in the best manner. His focus on the "marginalized" people from society and on a secondary level, of the handicapped, begun here, but it would not find its apogee until later in his career. However, the unusual for his film style commercial success, would never abandon him.

Similar in theme, but quite different in presentation was Lee's next film, "Peppermint Candy". Regarding the similarities of the two films, the director states: "There's no question that "Green Fish" and 'Peppermint Candy' draw on the political and economic problems of Korea. But they weren't my main focus. My main interest has always been human beings. I believe film is the best medium to show something about human beings. But people can't be separated from the environment (including the political and economical reality) that surrounds them. Man is affected by his reality, and in fighting against it finds meaning in his life. Those are the kinds of things I wanted to show". (Source:

"Peppermint Candy" (1999)

The story actually starts with Yong-ho's suicide, and then moves, in segments, backwards in time, in order to present the reasons that led him to this extreme act. Many of them coincide with some of the most important incidents in S. Korean history, as the student's demonstrations that led to the Gwangju massacre. Furthermore, the story around Yong-ho's first love, Sun-im, who loved him dearly is also revealed as the story progresses, proving the impact it had on him.

Lee Chang-dong presents a melodrama that stands apart from the plethora of similar productions due to its intense political element. In that aspect, and in order to comprehend the story fully, one should have certain knowledge of the country's history, since Lee assumes that his audience is familiar with the sociopolitical background of each segment. Apart from that, the reverse chronological order is artfully established, and does not confuse or tire, in an achievement that benefits the most from its elaborate editing. The character's depiction and analysis, and particularly of the two protagonists is another point of excellence, since all of their actions become utterly comprehensible and even justifiable. I also enjoyed the way Lee uses trains, which appear in almost every important moment of the film, with the purpose of reminding the way Yong-ho committed suicide, and as a medium of visualizing time.

The film was again a success, both commercially (the ninth highest grossing domestic film of 2000) but particularly in the festival circuit, as it screened and won awards all over the world, along with the 2000 Grand Bell Award for Best Film. His collaboration with Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri, which was quite tense as we are going to see later in the article, began here and continued for one more movie.

Written by Panos Kotzathanasis


Part 2:

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