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Book review: Kim Young-jin on Lee Chang-dong

Lee Chang-dong book cover(Seoul Selection, 2007)

I can imagine that there was a certain amount of discussion about the timing of this book. After a break of some years — enforced by his stint as Roh Moo-hyun’s first Minister for Culture and Tourism — the well-regarded director Lee Chang-dong was active again. His new film, with two of the hottest stars in the Korean film industry, was nearing finalisation and was going to get international attention at Cannes. What to do? Wait until the release of Secret Sunshine, do some in-depth analysis and some interviews, digest the critical reaction to the film, and thus produce a book which is as up-to-date and comprehensive as possible? Or rush out a virtually ready-made book so that it is ready on the shelves when westerners for whom “Korean film = Tartan Video” suddenly sit up and notice that there’s a different style of director out there, and want to find out about his earlier work.1

KOFIC and Seoul Selection took the latter option. Commercially, probably the sensible one, but for those already familiar with Lee’s existing work, the less satisfying one.

For an interviewer, Lee must be a maddening subject:

  • Self-deprecating: When the interviewer suggests that the name “Lee Chang-dong” has brand value, Lee responds: “But that brand value doesn’t attract a large audience… Not many people have actually seen my films. I’m just famous on paper.”
  • Secretive: Just about the only thing Lee can be persuaded to reveal about Secret Sunshine is “the film is just ordinary and normal. There is nothing more to it.”
  • Depressive: “How can a person who doesn’t know the concept of happiness be happy? My DNA is innately gloomy”

And for his actors, Lee is just as difficult:

Being a pessimistic perfectionist, Lee always starts from scratch if something is not right. … Ryoo Seung-wan … once talked about how Lee drove everyone crazy on the set. … Lee confesses that he feels great pain on film sets, as if he is entering hell.

Undaunted, film critic Kim Young-jin interviewed him 4 times over the past few years, and the result is this book. The interview transcripts take up around half the pages, with analysis and synopsis of Lee’s first three films, and a brief biography taking up the remainder.

Even if you have seen the films, there is always something to be gained from reading someone else’s perspective. But often more interest can be had from the biographical information and the personal views revealed in the interviews. For example, earlier in his career Lee had been a passionate advocate of the screen quota system. It is therefore ironic that as Minister he had to bend to political realities:

Kim: Around the time you resigned as Minister of Culture and Tourism you advocated the sliding scale screen quota system, which cut down the mandatory screening of Korean films from 146 days to 73 days…

Lee: There was a misunderstanding because the amount of information I was getting at that time as minister was very different from other people in the film scene. I knew the inside story of the free trade agreement between Korea and the US, and as minister, I couldn’t completely ignore the Korean government attempting to compromise with the USA.

But, in Lee’s view, Korean film doesn’t just need protection against Hollywood: it needs protection from itself:

To be honest, the future of Korean cinema is not very bright. Korean blockbuster films are eating up other Korean films. It’s getting more difficult to see the emergence of young directors like Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk. The Korean film scene needs to seriously embrace diversity regardless of nationality. (p12-13)

The mention of Hong and Kim is interesting. As the book points out, Lee is the same age as Jang Sung-woo and Park Kwang-su — the leaders of Korean film’s re-emergence in the late 80s / early 90s (Lee started his film career on the set of Park’s To the Starry Island as assistant director, along with Hur Jin-ho among others). And he started his own solo career as director at about the same time as Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk.

Despite that, he differentiates himself from both groups with his idiomatic style. Even I would dare to say that he shares commonalities with the next generation of filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ji-woon and Ryu Seung-wan, in the sense that they don’t completely discard the pattern of genre conventions.

It is to be hoped that Lee gets to be as well-known as some of these latter directors. Secret Sunshine may help, and if that film and this book encourages veiwers to explore Lee’s stimulating and thought-provoking earlier work, that is all to the good.

Secret Sunshine will be showing at the London Film Festival next month.

Lee Chang-dong filmography:

  1. A middle option, talking with authority about the upcoming film, was not available because the director wouldn’t give any useful information before its release []

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