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Lee Chang-dong Retrospective: The realistically melodramatic cinema of the "marginalized" - Part 2


His next film, "Oasis", was a transitional one, since his focus started to change from male characters to female, although in the particular movie, it lies in both. At the same time, his way of shooting also changed. As Lee states: "I used to plan everything out and shoot the scenes accordingly, but with "Oasis", I tried not to script things. If I saw a pattern, I changed it. If you script things, you can only see the emotions of the main characters. We went through many takes with the supporting actors. And sometimes for the extras also. I think everything in the frame influences the main character's emotions. If their actions contradict this in any way, it can dilute the emotion. That's why I was so picky about these small details. Sol Kyung-gu told me that I could only see the drawbacks" (Source: Kim Young-jin, "Lee Chang-dong", Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).

We will refer about this last aspect later in the text.

"Oasis" (2002)

The film sheds a rather realistic light in the lives of disabled people, through an extreme romance. This romance occurs between Jong-doo, a mildly mentally disabled man who has just been released from prison after his third conviction, revolving around a hit and-run that ended up with a man dead, and Gong-joo, the daughter of the victim who suffers from cerebral palsy. Jong-doo, after a reluctant reception from his family, visits the house of the deceased and meets Gong-joo, in a series of events that have him trying to rape her, her managing to avoid it, and him leaving a card with his phone number which eventually the girl calls, after her brother and his wife move out of the apartment they shared. As the two become closer, Jong-doo's already erratic behaviour becomes even more extreme, although the final consequences are not his fault at all.

Lee Chang-dong directs and pens a film that deals with a quite unlikely romance in order to portray in shuttering and occasionally disturbing (and even offensive) realism the circumstances of handicapped individuals. This approach makes it quite difficult to empathize with the characters, something the director seem to wish, presenting both as victims and as burdens to their families.

And if Gong-joo's behaviour is anticipated by society due to her illness, the same does not apply to Jong-doo, who is neither mentally disabled enough to be considered as a person who needs constant care nor intelligent enough to be left unsupervised. His behaviour occasionally seems evil but they are simply amoral and completely irresponsible, as the actions of a child who cannot understand that actions have consequences, with his older brother treating him as such in the most graphic fashion in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Both of these situations torment their families, something, though, that does not obstruct them from exploiting them, even in the most manipulative way.

Among a number of impressive scenes, the one with the family dinner where Jong-doo presents Gong-joo as his girlfriend stands out, for the number of revelations it provides, as much as the depiction way people react towards handicapped people. The ending of the sequence provides the permanent cut of ties of the former with his family, with the consequences occurring after that implying the disastrous effects actions like that bring.

Add to all that some splashes of surrealism that have Jong-doo acting as a completely healthy person, the melodrama that takes over the last part of the movie and a truly shuttering finale and you have the backbone of a masterful social drama.

Moon So-ri gives an outstanding performance in the film, for which she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Emerging Actor or Actress in the 2002 Venice Film festival, among a plethora of awards, once more bestowed in one of Lee's films. However, around this time, the rumors about Lee being exceptionally hard on his actors came to the fore. According to Moon So-ri, who also starred in "Peppermint Candy". Lee is the kind of director who grabs the actor by the neck and silently says, "Hey, you. Look at this closely. This is you. This is you. Do you want to be a different person? No, this is you. Look at it directly and acknowledge it". The actor resists at first, but he or she has to do it anyway and eventually comes to accept it. Lee enjoys this painful process.  Particularly in "Oasis", and again according to Moon, they had to shoot the rape scene more than ten times because Lee kept saying it wasn't enough. Even though she felt like fainting, Lee told her to go to the hospital to get a shot and come back for more takes.

Eventually however, and despite this awful experience, his actors want to come back when it ends, and Moon says, "When he told us to start over from the beginning, none of us understood. But we started over anyway and that's the power he has. He questions what he believes and then flips the situation-that's amazing". Lee does not deny the aforementioned; instead, he admits that he feels great pain on film sets, as if he is entering hell. (Source: Kim Young-jin, "Lee Chang-dong", Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).


Before his next film, Lee Chang-dong became Minister of Culture. Lee supported Roh Moo-hyun's candidacy since 2002, and after he won the elections, Lee served in the office from 2003 to 2004. On the political appointment, Lee said: "At the time of President Roh Moo-hyun's election campaign, one of the things he promised was that his Minister of Culture would be selected from the field of culture and art rather than a professional politician. Well, he got elected, and a lot of people recommended me as this new Minister of Culture. I never thought that this was an outfit that suited me particularly well, but had to accept it as one of those bitter cups one has to accept in the course of life". (source :

During his term, Lee proposed a screen quota for independent film but his proposal met with fierce opposition by the Korean movie industry. However, he had some success and in October 2006, he was rewarded for his efforts with the Chevalier (Knight) order of the Legion d'Honneur (Legion of Honor) by the French government for "his contribution to maintaining the screen quota to promote cultural diversity as a cultural minister". It was delivered to the French embassy in South Korea by the French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres during an official visit.

After all this, it was finally time for his next film. Lee Chan-dong said about "Secret Sunshine": "I went for normality in this film. And I think the nature of the film should be normal. I regret I couldn't find a way to make things even simpler"

"We decided on one thing, which is 'No long takes for this movie.' Instead, we tried to shoot the same shot from different angles, so we could use them in editing. But then again, that made things way too complicated. So sometimes we just went for long takes again".

However, according to the rumors, the movie was shot under an extremely tense atmosphere with Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon almost passing out from exhaustion. When asked about the subject, Lee said: "It wasn't that bad. We didn't particularly do more shooting repeatedly for the same shot than other times. " . (source: Kim Young-jin, "Lee Chang-dong", Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).

On another interview though, in 2011, Lee stated: "In the case of Jeon Do-yeon in "Secret Sunshine", she actually hated me during the shooting of the film. I mean she loves me now, after the shooting and the release of the film, but during the shooting she HATED me. Her character in the film hates God so I told her: "Imagine Him to be me, imagine your hate for ME".. Her hate for me was very useful for the film, for her acting". (source:

"Secret Sunshine" (2007)

The script is based on the short fiction "The Story of a Bug" by Lee Cheong-joon and revolves around Lee Sin-ae, a woman whose husband recently died instigating her somewhat baseless decision to move to his hometown, Miryang (the literal translation of the town's name is Secret Sunshine) along with her little boy. On their way there, her car breaks down and Kim Jong-chan, a local mechanic comes to her help, with the two of them immediately becoming friends, although he seems to want much more from her. Sin-ae soon manages to adapt to her new environment, as much as her son does, despite some minor incidents of gossip, particularly with the help of Kim, who follows her around like a puppy. Soon though, another tragedy hits her already fate-stricken life, when on a night she is out drinking, her son is abducted. After the shocking events, Lee finds herself completely devastated, joining a local cult after the repeated pleas of a local pharmacist, and trying to fight grief that reaches the borders of madness. All the while, Kim stays by her side.

Lee Chang-dong directs a highly insightful, heart-breaking drama about a woman who finds herself completely unable to control her fate, and subsequently, her life, with devastating consequences. As the director deconstructs her, he makes a point of highlighting the fact that the disasters finding her are not only instigated by fate, as a general concept, but also by her poor decisions. In this manner, Lee avoids the reef of the melodrama, instead presenting a highly realistic drama.

The portrait of a woman that gradually succumbs to madness, not being able to fathom her misery and her responsibility, is definitely the focal point of the film, but is not the only one. Dealing with grief is another one, with Lee highlighting the fact that this is not always possible, particularly when combined with loneliness, which is another state-of-mind that seems to permeate Sin-ae. These two concepts benefit the most by the outstanding performance of Jeon Do-yeon, who presents her deconstruction and the fact that she is not completely logical from the beginning of the story, in the most impressive manner. Lee Chang-dong, as is his usual tactic with his protagonists, demanded a lot from her, having her present a number of psychological statuses and different behaviors, and she delivers to the fullest, anchoring the film in the process.

Another focal point of the film, although on a secondary level, is religion and particularly the concept of the cults, with Lee portraying it with documentary-like realism. The fact the Sin-ae finds some temporary solace in the cult, after some hard proselytizing from the pharmacist who seems to perceive her blights as an opportunity to draw her in, but does not avoid succumbing to madness in the end, presents Lee's comment on the matter, subtly, but rather obviously.

"Secret Sunshine" was, once more, a commercial success, as it sold 1,710,364 tickets nationwide in South Korea and received a number of awards in festivals, including one for Best Actress for Jeon Do-yeon, in Cannes.

Regarding his next film, "Poetry", Lee Chang-dong came with an idea, after reading about a real-life case where a small town schoolgirl had been raped by a gang of teenage boys. Lee wrote the lead character specifically for Yoon Jung-hee, a major star of Korean cinema from the 1960s and 1970s. Yoon later expressed satisfaction with how the role differed from what she typically played in the past, while Lee said about their cooperation that they had a very good relationship.

Lee says about the movie: "As far as "Secret Sunshine" and "Oasis" go, the stories and themes are more simple and this story is more complex. Before I actually made the film I didn't think of having it complex with many, many themes, but the event in the movie, the actual rape of a young girl by students and her suicide actually happened in real life so I didn't want to show it in a simple way. Many movies do it in that fashion, I didn't want to represent it in the way they do because it's not that type of movie. When I wrote the film, as I was writing it all the elements naturally became part of it, it developed in an organic way.

Poems are about things and occurrences that we don't see visually, it's the needing of beauty and meaning, that's what poetry can be. In a natural way there are many stories that interweave throughout the film, and the film's big scene is not just about the tragic event, but it also meets with what poetry is about, they interweave together."

"Poetry" (2009)

Mi-ja is an elderly woman who raises her teenage grandson by herself, since his mother has left him with her and moved to another city. She receives a pension from the state and works as a caregiver for a disabled man, but the money she receives is barely enough. Furthermore, she has to endure the beginnings of Alzheimer's that makes it difficult for her to remember even the simplest things, occasionally. However, she retains her cheerfulness and is almost constantly feisty, and even manages to attend some poetry lessons amidst all her issues. When the body of a dead teenage girl is discovered though, and her grandson, Jong Wook, seems to be involved in a case that is connected to the incident, along with a number of his classmates, she realizes she has to make some hard choices, while she has to raise a significant amount of money if she is to save him.

Lee Chang-dong uses the real-life case as a base but strays much away from it in order to focus on the life of the elderly in the country, and particularly the ones who live in the borders of society mainly because they have not secured a significant pension. In that fashion, we watch Mi-ja trying to survive on her own, almost without any help from the state or relatives for that matter, with the case of her grandson making her life even more difficult.
The generation gap is also presented, with her not being able to understand what her grandson is doing with his life and him treating her like a kind of a maid, with the sole exception of some games of badminton the two have. The first element is depicted quite thoroughly in a scene where Mi-ja is trying to use his computer.

Another comment regards society and the way it perceives justice, with Lee making a point of highlighting the fact that people think that money can make everything go away.

The film could have been a hard-hitting drama, but Lee implements a very different approach, which occasionally borders on comedy, through two axes. The first one is the concept of poetry and particularly the lessons and readings Mi-ja attends, which seems to stray completely away from the main case, but meets it in ingenious fashion during the end of the film. Through this concept, Lee also presents his thoughts on what is poetry and how people receive inspiration.

The second is Mi-ja herself, played with gusto and an almost constant cheerfulness by Yoon Jung-hee, who presents a woman who manages to retain her cheerfulness and smile despite her dire circumstances, in a measured but at the same time impressive performance.

The film won the Best Screenplay Award in Cannes, while Yoon Jung-hee received a number of awards for her performance both locally and internationally.

Lee Chang-dong's latest film, "Burning" is based on the short story "Barn Burning" written by Haruki Murakami, and will premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or.

Written by Panos Kotzathanasis


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