Unfairly overshadowed by his showier compatriots Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho, the writer-turned-director Lee Chang-dong deserves appraisal as one of the main figures of the ‘South Korean New Wave’. His award-winning films, though few in number, form a consistent body of work. All are intelligent dramas, revealing a desire to make both his characters and audience see the world in a new perspective. He achieves this by skilfully manipulating expectations, and tackling subject matter few other films dare address. While not the most technically innovative of filmmakers, Lee is a perfectionist, a remarkable orchestrator of actors, and a talented screenwriter whose novelist’s sensibilities flesh out rewarding, nuanced narratives.
The early years:
Born in Daegu, 1954, Lee grew up in a Korea undergoing rapid economical transformation, while under the repressive rule of a military dictatorship. In 1980, during his university days studying Korean literature, the Gwangju massacre saw hundreds of unarmed protestors shot by government troops. During this troubled decade of martial law, Lee began writing stories and novels. Awards and recognition followed, establishing him among the circle of dissident Korean artists. However, Lee grew jaded of the literary process, and in the 1990s was lured into a change of scene by his friend, the director Park Kwang-su, who wanted a screenwriter. The collaboration generated two films, both powerful, multi-layered narratives examining Korean history: To the Starry Island (1993), exploring the political past of 1950s Korea through flashbacks, and A Single Spark (1995), based on a real-life factory worker who self-immolated in protest against labour conditions. But Lee contributed more than the screenplays, as Park afforded him a hands-on role during production. This was Lee’s education in filmmaking, eventually giving him the ambition to direct a film himself.
This materialised in 1996 with his debut Green Fish, the story of Makdong, a young man just out of military service who moves to Seoul in search of job opportunities. A chance meeting in a train with the femme fatale girlfriend of a sadistic mobster sees him fall for her, and into the criminal underworld. Gangster and film noir undertones are present, but Lee’s greater interest in the internal emotions of his characters steers the film towards melodrama. All three proponents of this love-triangle are, in their own way, torn between harsh reality and impossible personal dreams, which is spun by Lee into a critique of how Korea’s fast-track modernisation has left behind many shattered hopes.
Visually, Lee embraced the storytelling potential at his disposal: for example setting all Seoul scenes at night, while Makdong’s provincial hometown, which he remembers as a childhood idyll, is seen only in daytime. The way it is now overlooked by newly sprouted high-rise towers also speaks volumes on the encroaching momentum of progress. Elsewhere, an evocative shot of Makdong driving in a circle represents his doomed banishment to the periphery of society in an apt visual metaphor. In the end though, the film’s downfall was the failed marriage between its different genre elements, and an uneven, overly episodic narrative that occasionally loses focus.
Lee’s second film, Peppermint Candy, reiterated themes (the human cost of history, nostalgia) and motifs (trains, a strange sense of deja-vu in the final scene) from Green Fish. This time they coalesced into an experience of visceral intensity with a reversed narrative structure, opening on the suicide of 40-year-old Yong-ho (a magnetic performance by Sol Kyung-gu), before progressively going backwards in time, deeper into his past. Seven segments, traversing 20 years and major historical events (the stock market crash, the economic boom, the military rule, and finally both Korea’s and Yong-ho’s ‘original sin’ the Gwangju massacre), force us to shape the back-to-front plot into a linear story, and constantly reevaluate our opinion of Yong-ho as the unravelling of his life provides incrementally more insight into his distressed final state. Just as South Korea goes from dictatorship to police state to new economic giant, Yong-ho goes from military service to cop to investor, carried by the tide of History into a wave of factors and consequences he cannot resist. However, Yong-ho is never exonerated nor excused, his character flaws and bad decisions being many along the way.
The film’s force lies in its harmonious balance between unsentimental drama about one man’s downfall, and national allegory. Dense with details recording the changes in Korean society over two decades, its themes range across military service, marriage infidelity, police brutality, business malpractice, and unfulfilled hopes, all neatly orbiting around the central character study. Recurring motifs such as a camera gifted to Yong-ho, a trauma-induced limp, trains (harbinger of progress but also of personal horrors for Yong-ho) and the eponymous candy, are turned into Proustian mementos of a life now lost. Already indicating Lee’s greater interest in structure and themes rather than style and technique, Peppermint Candy was a scathing indictment of the dehumanising effects of Korean history. On the eve of a new millennium when his country was eager to celebrate its emergence as an economic power, Lee delivered a brutal reminder of the impossibility of creating a fresh, hopeful future out of a rotten past.
Lee’s next film further explored the coping mechanisms used to escape reality’s hardships. Oasis stages an unconventional romance between two marginalised, exploited people, made credible by the palpable need each has for the other. Gong-ju (Moon So-ri) is physically debilitated by cerebral palsy, but mentally sharp, and utterly neglected by her family who abandon her in a hovel while they get the government-allotted flat she’s entitled to. The first to treat her as a human being is Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu again), initially out of lust — their disastrous first encounter shows the film’s provocative desire to deviate as much as possible from the stuff of fairy-tale romance — but later out of friendship and affection. Jong-du is an impulsive ne’er-do-well, with a mild learning disability, incapable of fitting into society, and shunned by his relatives. Shadowed by erratic hand-held camera work, he is an unpredictable focal point, giving the narrative a compelling unknowability before Oasis settles into a Fassbinder-esque mode of love inevitably destroyed by external pressures and prejudices.
Along the way, Lee inserts magic-realist flashes glimpsing into Gong-ju’s subjective headspace. She is thus shown acting out what her mind dreams of, be it getting up from her wheelchair to dance with Jong-du, or a moment of fantasy where the characters in the tapestry on her wall come to life. Lee’s trademark naturalism prevents these scenes ever feeling precious, and instead they poignantly depict the mental oasis her and Jong-du inhabit. They also display Lee’s ability to jolt audiences, as Moon So-ri’s physically exhausting performance is so convincing that her suddenly becoming able-bodied retains an element of surprise. Notwithstanding a final pay-off of unsentimental grace, the plot’s last third comes across as slightly contrived, with Lee perhaps guilty of forcing his characters into inexplicable choices in order to amp up the drama. But the powerhouse performances, and believable portrayal of love as shelter from the world for two mutually dependent social outsiders, made it an affecting, daring film.
Minister of Culture and return to cinema:
A five-year hiatus followed the success of Oasis, as Lee’s reputation led to him being offered, and accepting, the post of Minister of Culture and Tourism under the government of new president Roh Moo-Hyun. Frustrated by how little he could achieve under systemic bureaucracy, and disappointed at failing to salvage the ‘quota law’ protecting Korean theatrical screenings against the might of foreign imports, Lee resigned in 2004, and Roh’s presidency would later end in corruption scandals. Disillusioned by his brush with politics, Lee backed away from the public realm for a couple of years.
Lee’s comeback film, Secret Sunshine, centres around Shin-ae, a young widow moving, with her son, from Seoul to her deceased husband’s provincial hometown. Once there, she is re-acquainted with tragedy as her posing as a wealthy landbuyer inadvertently leads to the kidnap and murder of her little boy. Despite such potentially difficult material, Lee refrains from dramatics and leaves out any of the ensuing police procedural or trial, instead focusing on Shin-ae’s grief, breakdown and eventual search for solace in an evangelical Christian congregation. Lee’s novelistic command of narrative is on full display through mercurial tonal shifts, moving from melodrama, to thriller to an exploration of a crisis of faith, and even to comedy, with the presence of the bumbling Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a hapless but cheerful mechanic who follows Shin-ae around like a lapdog. The two are in direct contrast, as Shin-ae is constantly in search of herself and gets lost in tentative agonising over what she cannot see, while Jong-chan is more simple-minded, down-to-earth, and comfortable with his identity.
Convincing as a sociological inquiry into the appeal and need for religion, particularly in moments of greatest hardship, Secret Sunshine wrestles with abstract notions successfully, thanks to Lee’s unembellished clarity and precision, which removes the mysticism out of unworldly themes. Another structural contrast highlights Lee’s approach, as the frames filled by sky at the beginning are counterpointed with a seemingly banal final close-up of garden soil, indicating that Shin-ae’s tortuous internal search should begin by focusing on what is visible and right in front of her. Rich and fully realised, minimalistic despite dealing with extraordinary subject matter, and capped with another remarkable lead performance this time by Jeon Do-yeon, Secret Sunshine is arguably Lee’s most impressive film. A central scene in which Shin-ae visits the murderer in prison, and has the carpet of her faith and illusion of self-importance swiftly tugged from under her feet, lives long in the memory, and a tough, endurance-test of a final third makes us experience Shin-ae’s existential struggle alongside her.
His last film to date, Poetry, won Best Screenplay at Cannes, and was his first to be distributed in the UK. Lee managed to convince veteran actress Yoon Jeong-hee her to come out of retirement for the part of Mija, a coquettish, girlish sextagenarian widow. Mija is increasingly forgetting words due to the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but simultaneously rekindles with her youth by taking poetry classes. She is the legal guardian of her blank-faced teenage grandson, whose mind is impenetrable to her, and the generational gap is only exacerbated when she learns of a horrific act he and five other schoolmates have committed. When the parents of the other five agree to pay compensation to the victim in order to spare their sons criminal charges (a practice Lee had already depicted in Oasis and which according to him is relatively common in Korea), Mija is put to the test both by financial shortcomings and her conscience, in a plot loosely riffing on Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home‘.
An early scene where Mija, in a hospital waiting-room, absent-mindedly watches news footage of a Palestinian mother who has lost her child, metonymically represents the film’s themes. Mija does not know the victim of her grandson’s crime, any more than she does this far-away grieving woman on TV, yet will find herself connected, through empathy, to someone who had previously been just as much of a stranger. Lee brilliantly integrates multiple subplots, so that Mija’s lesson in empathy is linked to her budding poetic mindset, a confrontation with a stroke victim she works as carer, and meeting a policeman-poet whose bawdy sex-obsessed jokes make Mija initially dislike him, but who, in typical Lee fashion, will later contradict her (and our) judgments. Yoon’s exquisite central performance renders Mija into another believably unpredictable protagonist, whose dementia means we cannot ever be sure she knows quite what she is doing, or why. More so than in any of his other films, the elliptical editing leaves room for the audience to draw their own interpretations, right up to an obliquely poetic and emotionally affecting climax marked by a conspicuous absence.
Over the course of his five films, Lee has cemented a place for himself in his adopted medium, without falling into any of the major Korean film trends. After his early critiques of male-driven society, Lee’s next two films picked up the thread of Oasis’ portrait of Gong-ju and focused on female central characters. They can be seen as deconstructions of the well-established East Asian genre of the ‘woman’s melodrama’, stripped of all mawkish sentimentality. Lee tells stories of people with little left to lose, in need of some filter through which to view, and engage with, the world: idealised nostalgia in the first two films, escapist shelter from outside prejudice in Oasis, religion in Secret Sunshine and art/poetry in Poetry. The later two films were also both interested in conveying something intangible and invisible, in an essentially visual medium, indicating an ambition that the film’s modest surfaces belie.
Perhaps due to his background in another art, Lee is always self-consciously questioning cinema’s role as a medium, and how most effectively he should use it for his own purposes, treading a fine line between well-constructed structures and narrative unpredictability to keep audiences on their toes. Ostensibly a moralist, he somehow mixes hope with pessimism, inspired by the typically Korean notion of Han, and rarely misses a chance to act as the ‘social conscience’ of Korea’s economic progress. Now over four years since his last film, a new Lee Chang-dong project is eagerly awaited, and rumours about a proposed serial-killer thriller, reuniting him with Sol Kyung-gu and also starring Chinese star Zhang Ziyi, are tantalisingly intriguing but remain unconfirmed.
The influence of his initial mentor Park Kwang-su, as well as that of early pioneers of Korean auteur cinema like Im Kwon-taek, are clearly important. As an instrumental figure for Korean cinema today, he has produced several films for younger Korean directors, most recently July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (2014). Influence from literature and poetry, both Korean and Western, are also naturally a strong presence in his work, and he has even given cameos to several contemporary Korean literary figures in his films.
Comparisons with past masters of the unsentimental melodrama like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk, John Cassavetes or even Ingmar Bergman, could all be interesting avenues to think about. Of course, Peppermint Candy‘s reverse chronological structure had also been done before, by Harold Pinter (in the play and screenplay Betrayal), Jane Campion (Two Friends), and after him by Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) and Christopher Nolan (Memento), but any relationship in terms of influence in either direction is doubtful.