Alienation and industrialisation in Green Fish

Matthew Jackson encounters Lee Chang Dong for the first time

“Good, but gruelling” was Jason Bechervaise’s summary of the film for me in the lift in on the way up to the screening of ‘Green Fish’ at the Cultural Centre on Thursday night. I later learned this film had been the subject of his dissertation, but I found this succinct version to be remarkably apt.

green fish

The story follows a young man returning to his hometown to be faced with unemployment and a general sense of alienation. He is beguiled by a mixture of lust and lucre into the world of the minor-league mafia boss Bae Tae-kon and his paramour Mi-ae. This choice leads initially to financial security, and ultimately to adultery, murder, and his own death.

As I always seem to find with Korean films, the plot as expressed on paper fails to convey the experience of viewing it. This is because it was art rather than entertainment. Not being a student of film direction, it is unclear to me exactly why. I learned afterwards that Lee Chang-dong is known for his relatively Spartan approach to filming, using few cameras and holding them steady. This combines with decidedly unromanticized images and uneven progression in the story, making it painfully easy to sympathise with the seemingly helpless protagonist Mak-dong.

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The closing scene in the film is of his family, peacefully tending to their tasks at the restaurant, making kimchi in the front yard, while the view expands to include the sinister high-rise apartments looming in the background, as if to say that industrialisation (and by implication, organised crime) is here to stay.

Despite the lack of a Disney-style happy ending, the message of the film that came through to me was more moral than politico-societal, in portraying the results of a good person giving in to anger and greed, and more scarily, in the person of the boss Tae-kon, those of a scarred childhood turning into an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

I don’t know if any of Lee’s films deal with redemption, but this seemed to be the only missing piece in the puzzle of what was a very engaging and emotionally profound film. I look forward to the next one in two weeks.

Green Fish

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