A celebrated academic and novelist prior to his directing career, Lee Chang-dong came to filmmaking relatively late in life, making his first feature in his forties. What unites all of his films is their extensive portraits of characters often at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, be they societal and historical developments in his native South Korea, debilitating illnesses, or some omnipresent force that seems out to get them. As evidenced in his brilliant latest, Burning, Lee is unafraid to confront the ugliness of human nature. To celebrate the film’s release, we’ve put together a handy primer of his previous directorial efforts.
Green Fish (1997)
Although his confident gangster movie debut leans heavily on familiar genre beats, Green Fish sees Lee concentrate on notions of family and his lead’s erratic mental negotiations more than explosions of violence. Rather than being lured by greed, lead Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), a naive young man desperate for patriarchal acceptance, finds his way into a life of crime after mandatory military service leads to no prospects upon his return home. Things inevitably go awry, but the exact nature of the film’s final gut-punch sequence comes as a surprise; the first example of Lee’s willingness to toy with viewers’ emotions.
Peppermint Candy (1999)
Lee’s epic second feature remains his most ambitious to date in terms of storytelling scope. Opening with a man’s suicide on a railway bridge, the film jumps back in time across 20 years, showing what brought Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) to this point of desperation. Charting in reverse his development from idealistic student to military service to brutal police officer to abusive married businessman, Lee doesn’t seek to redeem Yong-ho or explain away his personal responsibility in some of his destruction, but instead demonstrate how external forces in South Korea’s history – including the massacre in the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 – play their part in the gradual corruption of citizens. A raw work that’s like diving into a festering wound. In a good way.
It’s rare to find a film where almost no scene plays out like you’re expecting it to, but such is the case with Oasis, in which Lee skates fearlessly between sentimental humanism and provocation. Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu again), an irresponsible young man with a suggested though never clarified mental illness, attempts to visit the widow of the man he killed drunk-diving, only to meet her daughter, Han Gong-ju (Moon So-Ri in a Venice prize-winning performance), who has cerebral palsy.
This is arguably Lee’s most challenging work as he doesn’t sanitise uncomfortable elements of the story, and the emotional highs have dark undertones. That said, it’s possibly the hardest of his films to shake off, and with flourishes of magical realism – Han Gong-ju seems to imagine herself without her disorders; Moon switching gears in the same sustained shot – it’s also a stylistic outlier in Lee’s career.
Secret Sunshine (2007)
As with Burning and Haruki Murakami, Secret Sunshine sees Lee adapt an author (Chong-jun Yi) rather than present a screenplay entirely of his own creation. The first of two Lee films fully centred on a female protagonist, this harrowing melodrama follows Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon, winner of Best Actress at Cannes in 2007) as she relocates her life to the town where her dead husband was born, with her very young son in tow. As she struggles to adjust, another tragedy strikes, sending her into an emotional tailspin in a saga that probes questions of faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jeon’s wrenching performance has earned deserved comparisons to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.
Pre-Burning, this was Lee’s biggest success in English-language markets, following a 60-something woman (Yun Jeong-hie) coping with early stages Alzheimer’s disease and the discovery of a horrific family crime. Beautifully measured, it’s another example of Lee’s skill with balancing quiet indignation at societal injustices alongside a tender, nuanced character study.
Burning is released 1 February. Read the LWLies Recommends review.