This month, Metrograph is running “Novel Encounters: The Films of Lee Chang-dong,” a retrospective of the filmmaker’s career to date. The program includes four films in new 4K restorations from Film Movement: Green Fish, Peppermint Candy, Oasis, and Poetry

Lee’s debut, Green Fish, particularly benefits from restoration, considering it was previously quite hard to find outside Internet back-channels ever since its low-quality DVD went out-of-print some years ago. The film, an impressive debut, more fully brings into light Lee’s career-long preoccupations––how a character is impacted by anger and isolation, the dichotomy between rural and urban landscapes, and their particular socio-political context.

Lee’s work can be cleaved into two parts: the first three films and the next three films. Not only is there an important shift, following Oasis, from male protagonists to female protagonists, but also a gravitation towards a more ephemeral subject matter and ambiguous mode of storytelling.

I recently had a chance to interview Lee via email about how he thinks his work may or may not have changed since 1997, his experience working with the late Yoon Jeong-hee, and how he currently feels about the Korean film industry.

Lee’s responses translated by Tony Jaeyeong Jeong.

The Film Stage: You once said you wanted to “narrow the gap between the film and the reality” while you were directing Green Fish. But your latest, Burning, feels more metaphysical and ambiguous than your debut’s melodrama. Do you still seek reality within your films? Or do you believe the ambiguity we find in your latest work is the characteristic of the world we are living in?  

Lee Chang-dong: I have always believed in and wanted to create films that reflect the reality we are living in, ever since I started my film career with Green Fish. The perpetual inquiry I hold as a filmmaker is how much a film can mirror and question the reality of our lives. The reason why the method in which I depict reality seems different in Green Fish and Burning may be because the world we live in has changed that much, or because our view of the world has changed. Through Green Fish, I intended to show that the logic of violence that operates Korean society––the logic of economic development through destructive gentrification and the logic of ruthless gang members––are not so different.

The problems of Korean society were easier and clearer back in that era. Nowadays, the reality is more ambiguous. Economic inequality is wider, individual lives are more powerless than ever, but it is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause. Through the mystery-thriller genre of Burning, I wanted the audience to think about this mystery of our current society. 

I recently rewatched Green Fish and felt the film was full of bold, impressionistic compositions. I know you were a novelist before becoming a filmmaker, so I’m curious where your unique sense for composition comes from. Was it a natural instinct, or something you learned while watching other films?

Experiences in my life are what shaped me as a filmmaker, as obvious as that sounds. My artistic taste was shaped by the mountains and fields of my childhood village, my old house, the alleyways of a post-war city in poverty, and the small rented room where my family lived together. My writing was shaped by the emotions––sadness, pain, frustration, love, dreams, hope––I exchanged with the people around me. Branching off from my taste, I was also influenced by the innumerous books and films that I consumed. These experiences would have created my own artistic sensor. The way in which the sensor works shows the characteristics of my films.

When I first saw Peppermint Candy, I remember being fascinated by the fact that it poetically followed the passage of time through the movement of a train. I think the train scenes resonated with me so much because they provided a moment of refuge among emotionally intense scenes throughout the movie. How did you come up with this idea, and why did you decide to choose “Train” as your structural device?

Peppermint Candy is a film that asks the audience about the meaning of time through going back in time. I tried to visualize the passage of time through the train. As the chapters progressed in the film, you see you are going back in time in the perspective of a train. I thought the train scenes will provide the audience with a moment of fresh air while allowing them to reflect on the events that happened onscreen between the chapters. Trains give a serene feeling in itself. We feel nostalgia when we see a train running in the middle of a field.

In order to evoke the meaning of time, a train appears in every decisive moment of protagonist Young-ho’s life. At the final site of the tragic murder he commits, the train is stationary. The train itself is also related to the field of film. In history, the invention of trains changed humans’ understanding of time and speed. A film is a medium that reproduces time. It can be said that it is very symbolic that the first film ever made by the Lumière brothers is called “The Arrival of a Train.”

Anger’s an emotion that stands out among the protagonists of all your work, especially the earlier films. I also know you talked about how important you think anger is as an element of storytelling. Are there any other artists or works that utilize the emotion of anger that made an impression on you?

Surprisingly, not a lot of artworks deal with the theme of anger. Compared to the problems of class, inequality, and alienation, people’s anger came under the limelight relatively recently. There have been attempts to use people’s anger to exploit and expand in politics, with the example of fascism, but there aren’t that many works that directly explore the theme of anger. In this perspective, I believe Philip Roth’s Indignation is a very peculiar novel. The novel is set during the Korean War, but the ending where the protagonist dies a meaningless death is a warning to today’s world.

In your earlier works, the female characters stand by the male characters and criticize their masculinity. Then Secret Sunshine and Poetry show two female protagonists that explore their world and their existence. On the other hand, Burning’s woman protagonist disappears midway through the film, but the film is centered around a question: “Who is this woman?” How has the character and the scope of your films changed as you broadened your perspective?

The protagonists in my films are helpless individuals that find the meaning of their lives by struggling through reckless fights. If the protagonist is a woman, the struggle becomes more complex; the question that goes to the outward world that represses her becomes more fundamental. Their struggle is their identity and the reason why I am making the film.

The most notable thing about Poetry is that the protagonist, Mi-ja, is completely isolated from her friends and family. Even the only people (sexual assault perpetrator parents’ meeting, the elderly she cares for, reporters) that seek her attention still neglect her as an individual. But despite the alienation and her health deteriorating due to a sickness, she is passionately curious about her surroundings. Do you find the curiosity of Mi-ja within yourself?

Mi-ja is a woman completely alienated from the world. She doesn’t have any close friends, is unable to have a conversation with her grandson who lives with her, and doesn’t even understand her daughter whom she calls “her eternal friend.” This worn-out world treats her childlike innocence as gullible foolishness. Though she was isolated from the world, she holds curiosity about her surroundings. In other words: she holds a sensitive empathy towards the pain of others. She could write poems because she had that. Empathizing with the pain of others is the starting point for every writer and artist.

Unfortunately, Yoon Jeong-hee passed away last year due to Alzheimer’s. She actually came back from her retirement in order to perform in your film Poetry. How did you decide to work with her, what conversation did you have with her, and how was your experience working with her?

Yoon Jeong-hee was a legendary actress who starred in over 300 films when she was young, but she left Korea after her marriage and hadn’t performed onscreen for 16 years. I was determined that the protagonist of this film had to be Yoon Jeong-hee even before I was writing Poetry; there were no alternatives. I only had met her personally once or twice in film festivals, but she felt like the real Mi-ja. I told her the story of the film when we were having dinner before I began writing the screenplay, in which she was very eager to play the part based on what I had told her. Her husband read the screenplay later and was surprised by how much the protagonist’s personality resembled his wife. Yoon Jeong-hee perfectly understood and followed my style of directing. When she was in her prime, there was no sync dialogue in film, so every line had to be dubbed and the acting had to be much more grandiose. But she succeeded in living as Mi-ja rather than acting as Mi-ja. Unfortunately, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s were beginning to affect her when we were shooting this film––she had great trouble memorizing the dialogue. As Mi-ja began to write poetry as she gradually forgot the words, Yoon Jeong-hee began to act as Mi-ja as she gradually forgot the lines.

In Poetry, no form of music is used with the exception of the scene in a karaoke. However, the film begins and ends with the smooth sound of water flowing. Was not using any form of music a decision you made from the beginning, or did you naturally not use it because it didn’t go along with the film?

I tend to refrain from using music in my films. This is because film scores are artificially given from outside the film to amplify its emotional resonance. It is ideal if the audience can feel the musicality of a scene without actual music. I search for that innate musicality of a scene through every stage of a film’s production. Poetry is a film that is looking for true beauty. I wished for the audience to feel musicality within the everyday ambience of our lives without any artificial interference––such as the sound of wind, rain, cars, children chattering. But I was not sure about removing all music from a film––especially from a film with the title of Poetry. So I had a composer create a soundtrack just in case. The soundtrack was beautiful, but I decided to take away the music at the final mixing stage. The composer was very disappointed, but he thankfully respected my decision.

When Burning was released, you were optimistic about the future of Korean film with the mention of the government’s artistic repression, in the form of the Blacklist, having threatened your colleagues in the previous decade. Some time has passed from then. Do you now feel the Korean film industry is in a better place?

While I may have been optimistic at the time, I believe that the Korean film industry is in a real crisis and at its turning point. Two major changes happened from that time. One is the pandemic; audiences could not go to theaters for two, three years. Another is the change in the media environment, like the rise of streaming services. These two things changed the perception and the habits of the audience. People not only believe that they don’t have to watch movies in the theater, but they are also replacing film with other forms of entertainment. This may not be a problem unique to Korea, but a fundamental change in the medium of film.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects? 

I am writing two different projects at the same time. I do not know which one I will pursue first as of now, but it will not take long for me to decide.

“Novel Encounters: The Films of Lee Chang-dong” starts today at Metrograph, followed by a theatrical expansion of the restorations and home video and digital release from Film Movement.

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