As a film critic, I sometimes encounter a director who I want to challenge. Director LEE Chang-dong is that kind of director. Although I’m not 1 00 percent in support of his cinematic technique, I am touched by his films and I cannot exactly figure out why. That is why I want to challenge him. His cinematic structure has plot lines and metapho rical images that seem too perfect , which makes me feel completely contained inside the film. When films rely on an artificial structure, they tend to fall into a structural trap that fails to reverberate emotionally. LEE’s films delicately escape from this trap. So when I meet him, I feel a strong urge to uncover his secret
LEE Chang-dong, a former novelist, is a highly articulate person. His words from casual conversation could become beautiful prose if dictated. While talking to him, I realize that he is trying to create something new within a familiar framework, which he and his audience have established together. Take Oasis for example, the
tightly woven plot seems to leave no space for interpretation, but the film’s subject matter-the love between an ex-convict and a woman with cerebral palsy-is painful because of its sheer physicality. The film tries to find beauty in the ugly flesh of socially marginalized and despised people, which is considered to be very ambitious.
On the other hand, despite the emotional escalation of the audience, the film ends in a very flat tone, and this also can be considered ambitious. The audience is ready to cry, but the director discourages them from doing so. The fictionalized world in LEE’s films seems perfectly real, but, in fact, they are governed by his fictionalized logic.
There is no room for escape in that world. It is no wonder I wanted to challenge his world view.
Once I mentioned to him that although Japanese director Kitano Takeshi’s loosely filmed Kikujiro was, in fact, despondent of reality, it had a ‘that’s okay’ kind of attitude. I told him that, compared to Kikujiro, Oasis is overly obsessed with reality. As a matter of fact, LEE’s films are often haunted by the trace of heavy contemplation that is constrained to reality. LEE smilingly answered, “Takeshi
throws j okes at the world, while I take everything seriously. But who likes a stiff who only talks about serious stuff?! You make a fool out of yourself by saying things people already know but choose not to talk about. They don’t like it because it’s painful and then I act as if I’m the only one who knows, which bothers people. And here I am, still taking things seriously and giving you a serious talk” And he laughed.
In Takeshi’s films, which usually go unscripted, the camera often gazes absentmindedly at the characters while there is little action from them. This kind of loose structure allows for a certain amount of freedom, but Takeshi claims that he did so only to make the film long enough. Of course, he was j oking, but when I told LEE
about this, he made serious face and said, “That’s a lie. Takeshi’s films have a carefully calculated rhythm and tempo, which creates an intimacy with the audience.
This technique is from Noh, classical Japanese drama. Nothing seems to happen, but suddenly there is a burst of action. This form appeals to Western audience, but would be nothing new for the Japanese. ”
In fact, Takeshi’s films are not very popular in Japan. Yet, I don’t think i t is because his films don’t provide anything new to Japanese audience as LEE suggested. What makes them unpopular is his pessimistic and dissenting attitude that, the world sucks, so I ‘m j ust going to make jokes about it. The Japanese don’t buy his
j okes because they can often find Takeshi in TV comedies . Whereas his comedy routines are provocatively biting and slapstick, his films have an almost meditative feel on the other hand. In that sense, LEE and Takeshi have something in common.
One talks seriously and the other j okes, but their destination is the same. Both of them present a new world to those feeling not very comfortable with it and elicit emotional response from them. What we are seeing does not necessarily represent the
truth in our world and the same applies to films as well. It is surprising to see that LEE’s serious films convey more optimism than Takeshi’s jesting films . Behind a serious face, LEE’s films furtively sugaest humor and sorrow-a double-sided aspect which is well represented in Jong-du in Oasis, played by S UL Kyoung-gu, who
giggles throughout the film, but dazzles and moves the audience.
This conveys the true shape of our mundane world, which can’t be simplified.
His films may seem to present a world of despair, but they are optimistic. They lie between optimism and pessimism, affi rmation and negatio n , j oy and sorrow, empathy and apathy, and real and surreal . His tightly woven films e m b race numerous semantic and emotional aspects, which allow the audience to experience several layers of meaning and emotion. Up until now, this is the most virtuous thing by with LEE’s films have abided.
LEE began his film career as a scriptwriter and assistant director of To the Starry IsLand directed by PARK Kwang-su. As a contemporary of PARK, LEE entered the literary world in the 80s while PARK entered the film world. When LEE came onto
the film scene, PARK was already one of the most influential directors, leading “the New Korean Cinema” along with JANG Sun-woo. Even though LEE participated in PARK’s another film, A SingLe Sparks as a scriptwriter before debuting with Green
Fish, he has little in common with PARK.
LEE Chang-dong has made three films so far, and his fourth film is about to be released. Ko rean cinema has changed significan tly since he began his career.
Directors from the Korean New Wave of the late 80s to mid 90s, such as PARK Kwang-su, JANG Sun-woo and JUNG Ji-yo ung, have all been losing gro und considerably. PARK has since to recover from his failure, LEE Jae-seui Nan. The counter-cinematic JANG, who made the daring anti-structuralist films Bad Movie and Lies, saw his latest experimental fi l m , with a ten million dollar budget,
Resurrection of the LittLe Match GirL tank at the box office. Both PARK and JANG once held dominant positions in the industry, where they exercised complete creative control and attracted A-list Korean actors. It is ironic to watch their careers dwindle
after they produced overwhelmingly huge projects.
Films by HONG Sang-soo and KIM Ki-duk, members of the next generation of the mid 90s, haven’t experienced quite the blockbuster appeal that PARK and JANG once garnered. HONG began his career in 1 996, with films that probed into the banality of everyday life . His films strongly influenced young filmmakers and
provided a kind of guideline to them. But, as his microcosmic world began to take on unique patterns, he modestly repositioned himself to appeal to a particular group of audience.
Despite his international success, KIM Ki-duk’s controversial films continue to attract only a limited audience in Korea. Although LEE is of the same age as PARK and JANG, he began his career around the same time as HONG and KIM did.
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 Jee-woon and RYOO Seung-wan, in the sense that they don’t completely discard the pattern of genre
These director’s films can be categorized as the “Third Way” -they still fall within a specific genre, but clearly display the director’s idiosyncratic style. While the d i rectors e m b race the c o nve n t i o n of g e n r e , they skillfully b reak fro m the psychological causality of genre films. This is similar to the films with un-happy endings made in the 70s by the New Hollywood Cinema directors. Although the contemporary Japanese director Kurosawa Kiyoshi has a similar style, the Korean directors develop large-scale narratives with unconventional endings where style is of utmost importance. For example, PARK Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
presents a confrontation between the capitalist and the worker through a kidnapping and murder in which the enemy is unclear. The film portrays despair and irony in an absurdistic style against the backdrop of a seemingly postmodern Korean society.
Although this film was not popular, PARK’s other film Old Boy, which explores incest and the destruction of family, was successful at the box office. PARK freely utilizes multiple shifting points of view, with editing and imagery that implies that the main characters are “old boys . ” After strongly identifying with the main character, the film turns to give us a twisted kind of pleasure as we witness the destruction of a star actor. PARK’s films probe into Korean society where political cynicism and desperation are rampant; he utilizes j ump cuts and special camerawork to represent the hellish mental states of the characters.
*Courtesy by Lee Chang Dong. Korean Film Directors. Korea, Seoul Selection, 2007. Pages. 19 to 23.