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The Unseen and the Unspoken: The Films of Lee Chang Dong

Lee Chang Dong: A Retrospective, May 5-12, Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. (at 70th St.)

From <i>Secret Sunshine</i>, Jeon Do Yeon and Song Kang Ho. Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment.
From Secret Sunshine, Jeon Do Yeon and Song Kang Ho. Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

With only four films, Lee Chang Dong has proved himself on the vanguard of the most powerful works in contemporary Korean cinema. Alongside the shocking sublimity of director Kim Ki Duk (The Isle) or the extremely violent meditations on vengeance of Park Chan Wook (Old Boy), standing out would seem no easy feat. But if we consider cinema as an artistic interpretation of national identity, then the intensity of all these filmmakers attests to how emotionally complex and fervent the Korean psyche must be.

With dark stories of innocence lost, suffering and alienation, Lee’s humanistic concerns appear to set him apart from his contemporaries. Yet despite their violence, humanism is also at the basis of Park and Kim’s work, and is evident even in the Korean blockbuster monster film The Host. Lee however, shys away from masking his themes with bold surrealism or expansive genre trappings. Instead Lee’s style and choice of subject matter seems more driven by naturalism. Through realistic portraits of troubled characters, Lee asks us to examine ourselves and to look at what society pushes under the rug. Focusing on the unseen or unspoken, Lee elevates experiences of the mundane world to fantastic heights. The stigma attached to the unwanted, the disabled and the disturbed is perhaps no greater than in Asian cultures, yet Lee forces us to reconsider such outcasts of society. Lee’s characters often find themselves forced to face up to their own emotional scars. In Peppermint Candy one man’s painful past becomes a cathartic metaphor for a traumatized nation.

Lee established himself as a successful novelist and screenwriter before branching out as a filmmaker with 1997’s Green Fish. The deceptively simple story follows young Mak Dong as he returns home after finishing his mandatory military service. On the train he encounters a bewitching woman who turns out to be a damsel in distress in more ways than one. Coming to her defense as she’s assaulted by some low-life thugs, Mak Dong receives the first of several beatings to come. Violence in Korean films often seems to have a latent sado-masochistic undercurrent, reflecting the guilt concomitant with Korean social obligations and Christianity. However in Green Fish the violence emerges as an indictment of socio-economic oppression. Mak Dong’s resilient spirit highlights his endearing naiveté. Even when threatened with defeat he grabs the nearest blunt object and fights back, showing no sign of fear. This trait brings him into the fold of a local gangster, the boyfriend of the aforementioned damsel.

All the tropes of a crime film are present, while the simmering romance between Mak Dong and the melancholic moll hints at sentiments of noir. But Lee refuses to turn this story into a standard gangster potboiler. Lee abandons hyper-stylized action and melodramatics for three-dimensional characters with a ring of truth, allowing for sharp social critique. Mak Dong wants nothing more than for his family to live happily together. However, rapid development in his hometown has led to the loss of the family home. Family dysfunction and dissolution reflects the specter of so-called progress marked by the new buildings that replace the old houses. In a flawed, but touching scene, the family reunites for a picnic only to fall apart when the alcoholic cop brother hits his wife, sending the mentally disabled brother into caterwauls. Mak Dong responds by getting in the car and driving circles around the family in melee. It is a painful moment to watch, with its metaphoric breadth stretching from the family’s deep emotional turmoil to the economic crisis staring them in the face.

Lee’s second film, Peppermint Candy, a tour de force socio-political allegory about one man’s reflection on his agonized life, struck deep chords with its Korean audience. Lee wastes little time at grabbing our attention, opening with a hysterical man on the verge of a violent suicide. Just as a train comes barreling towards him the man roars, “I want to go back.” Images of the train moving backwards frame a series of flashbacks descending in time. We witness the loss of innocence and eventual corruption of our protagonist Yong Ho. Each turning point in Yong Ho’s life mirrors a tragic event or fissure in Korea’s turbulent path towards democracy. Yong Ho’s career as a policeman allows Lee to confront issues such as the torture of student dissidents; Yong Ho’s mandatory military term exposes the tragic Gwang Ju massacre of 1980 in which civilians protesting against martial law were beaten and killed by the military.

Sol Kyung Gu’s performance as Yong Ho is nothing short of breathtaking. However, the sense of outrage throughout the film becomes exhaustive if not unnerving, weighing down the 130 minute running time. Yet one can’t help but feel compelled by the innovative structure, the resonant, multi-layered story and the efficiency with which it serves several agendas. While Lee is deeply invested in narrative, it is his predilection for inference over exposition that allows his films to transcend their own histrionics. Peppermint Candy is a devastating, if not wholly rewarding cinematic experience.

Doomed romances are present throughout Lee’s oeuvre. The forbidden relationship described in Lee’s third film, Oasis (2004), critiques the selfishness and hypocrisy of Korean society. From the moment the main character Jong Du appears on screen it is apparent that something is wrong with him. His utter lack of social sensitivity might indicate some sort of psychological disorder. But as the story unravels we see that Jong Du’s happy-go-lucky spirit and purity sanctify him in a claustrophobic world of cold, callous and greedy individuals.

Jong Du can barely stay out of trouble but he finds a kindred spirit in another social outcast, a young woman confined to her home because of disability. The shame and burden felt by her family seem so de rigueur that it’s no surprise when they abandon her. Jong Du, portrayed impulsive and restless in another impressive performance by Sol Kyung Gu, is all that society despises: a delinquent slacker motivated by his id. But clever storytelling reveals our impressions to be an inversion of the truth. The abject Jong Du proves to be valiant and noble, free of the prejudices and avarice that corrupt and control the family unit and authority alike. Oasis is wrenchingly poignant in its sober look at love and societal failure.

Secret Sunshine, Lee’s latest film, is a beautifully rendered work about the pain of personal loss. In a Cannes prize winning performance Jeon Do Yeon is mesmerizing as Shin Ae, a young widow who moves to her late husband’s home town of Milyang (“secret sunshine” in Korean). In what appears to be a quiet slice of life, Shin Ae’s outspoken, free-spirit stands out as she settles down in this languid town. Then sudden tragedy hurls Shin Ae into an emotional whirlwind and eventual path of self-discovery. As Shin Ae wanders adrift in a state of shock and immense pain Lee takes the opportunity to dissect and expose the hypocrisy of religion, in this case the frightening self-righteousness of Evangelical Christianity. A great diegetic use of Kim Choo Ja’s moody ’70s pop scorcher “That’s a Lie” underlines this questioning of faith as well as highlighting the struggle of the individual in a fiercely judgmental society.


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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