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Part 2 of the Lee Chang-dong Retrospective: Exploring the Realistic and Emotional Cinema of Those on the Margins.
Part 2 of the Lee Chang-dong Retrospective: Exploring the Realistic and Emotional Cinema of Those on the Margins.

Part 2 of the Lee Chang-dong Retrospective: Exploring the Realistic and Emotional Cinema of Those on the Margins.

Lee Chang-dong’s film “Oasis” marked a transition in his focus from male to female characters. However, in this particular movie, both male and female characters play a significant role. Along with this shift, Lee also changed his approach to filming, as he explains: “In the past, I meticulously planned and shot every scene according to the script, but with ‘Oasis’ I tried not to script everything. I wanted to leave room for spontaneity and make adjustments if needed.” This was evident in the many takes he went through with not only the main actors but also the supporting actors and extras. Lee believed that every person and detail in the frame could influence the emotions of the main character, so it was crucial for each action and detail to align with and enhance the emotion. This perfectionism of Lee’s was noted by lead actor Sol Kyung-gu, who commented on the director’s attention to detail in capturing emotion.

We will discuss this final aspect later on in the text.

Oasis (2002)

The movie presents a realistic portrayal of the lives of disabled individuals through an intense love story. This love story involves Jong-doo, a man with mild mental disabilities who has just been released from prison for his third conviction, stemming from a hit-and-run accident where a man was killed. Gong-joo, the daughter of the victim who has cerebral palsy, crosses paths with Jong-doo when he visits the victim’s home. Initially, Jong-doo’s family is hesitant to accept him, but he develops a connection with Gong-joo after leaving his phone number with her. Eventually, she contacts him after her brother and sister-in-law move out of their shared apartment. As their relationship grows, Jong-doo’s already unpredictable behavior becomes even more extreme, although the ultimate outcome is not his fault.

Lee Chang-dong takes on the role of director and writer for a film that explores an unusual love story, shedding light on the harsh and unsettling realities faced by handicapped individuals. This perspective may make it challenging to feel empathy towards the characters, conveying a deliberate message from the director as they are portrayed both as victims and as burdens to their families.

Gong-joo’s illness can be predicted by society, but Jong-doo is in a different situation. He is not disabled enough to require constant care, nor is he intelligent enough to be trusted without supervision. Although his behavior may appear wicked at times, it is actually amoral and lacks responsibility, similar to a child who does not understand consequences. In one of the most impactful scenes of the film, his older brother treats him as such. These situations cause anguish for their families, yet they continue to exploit them, often in a manipulative manner.

Out of all the memorable scenes, the family dinner where Jong-doo introduces Gong-joo as his girlfriend is particularly noteworthy for the various revelations it brings to light and the portrayal of society’s attitudes towards disabilities. The conclusion of this scene marks the end of Jong-doo’s relationship with his family, and the aftermath showcases the negative impact of such actions.

In addition, there are elements of surrealism in which Jong-doo portrays a well-functioning individual, a shift to melodrama in the final portion of the film, and a haunting ending, all of which contribute to the solid foundation of a skilled social commentary.

Moon So-ri delivers a remarkable performance in the movie, for which she received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Emerging Actor or Actress at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, among numerous other awards that have been consistently bestowed upon Lee’s films. However, during this time, there were rumors of Lee’s strictness with his actors. According to Moon So-ri, who also starred in “Peppermint Candy,” Lee is a director who will physically grab the actor and convey, without words, the message of “This is you. Do you want to become someone else? No, this is you. Face it and accept it.” Although the actor may resist at first, he or she eventually embraces this challenging process. Lee takes pleasure in this intense approach, as was the case in “Oasis,” where Moon So-ri reveals that they had to shoot the rape scene more than ten times until Lee was satisfied. Despite feeling faint, she was instructed by Lee to go to the hospital for a shot and return for more takes.

In the end, despite the negative experience, his actors feel compelled to return once it is all over. Moon acknowledges, “When he instructed us to start from scratch, none of us grasped the significance. But we did it anyway, and that just shows his influence. He challenges his beliefs and then turns the situation around – it’s remarkable.” Lee does not deny this, but rather confesses to feeling immense anguish on film sets, as if he is descending into hell.

Before his next movie, Lee Chang-dong was appointed as the Minister of Culture. He had shown his support for Roh Moo-hyun’s presidential election in 2002, and after Roh’s victory, Lee served as the Minister from 2003 to 2004. Reflecting on his political role, Lee stated, “President Roh Moo-hyun had promised during his campaign that he would select a Minister of Culture from the world of culture and art rather than a professional politician. When he was elected, many people recommended me for this position. Although I didn’t see myself as a perfect fit, I had to accept it as one of life’s bitter pills.”

During his term, Lee proposed a screen quota for independent film but his proposal met with fierce opposition by the Korean movie industry. However, he had some success and in October 2006, he was rewarded for his efforts with the Chevalier (Knight) order of the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor) by the French government for “his contribution to maintaining the screen quota to promote cultural diversity as a cultural minister”. It was delivered to the French embassy in South Korea by the French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres during an official visit.

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Following everything, it was ultimately the moment for his upcoming movie. Lee Chan-dong expressed about “Secret Sunshine”: “I aimed for normality in this film. And I believe the essence of the film should be ordinary. I am disappointed that I was unable to streamline things even further.”

One decision we made for this movie was “No extended shots.” Instead, we aimed to capture the same shot from multiple angles to have options during editing. However, this ended up making things more complex. As a result, we occasionally opted for longer shots again.

Rumors suggest that the movie was filmed in a highly stressful environment, with Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon nearly collapsing from exhaustion. However, director Lee denies this and claims that they did not have to do more retakes than usual. (source: Kim Young-jin, “Lee Chang-dong“, Seoul, Korean Film Council, 2007).

During an interview in 2011, Lee discussed working with actress Jeon Do-yeon on the film “Secret Sunshine”. He revealed that she initially disliked him during filming, due to her character’s hatred for God. Lee encouraged her to channel that hatred towards him, which ultimately enhanced her performance in the film. Although she disliked him during filming, she now has a positive relationship with him after the film’s release.

The script is based on the short story “The Story of a Bug” by Lee Cheong-joon. It follows Lee Sin-ae, a woman who moves to her late husband’s hometown of Miryang with her son after his death. On the way, their car breaks down and they are helped by a local mechanic, Kim Jong-chan. The two become friends, but Kim’s feelings for Sin-ae go beyond friendship. Despite some rumors and gossip, Sin-ae and her son gradually adjust to their new life with the help of Kim. However, tragedy strikes again when her son is kidnapped while she is out drinking. In her despair, Sin-ae joins a local cult at the suggestion of a pharmacist and struggles to cope with her overwhelming grief. Throughout it all, Kim remains by her side, offering his support.

Lee Chang-dong directs a highly insightful, heart-breaking drama about a woman who finds herself completely unable to control her fate, and subsequently, her life, with devastating consequences. As the director deconstructs her, he makes a point of highlighting the fact that the disasters finding her are not only instigated by fate, as a general concept, but also by her poor decisions. In this manner, Lee avoids the reef of the melodrama, instead presenting a highly realistic drama.

The woman’s descent into madness, her inability to cope with her misery and responsibilities, is the main focus of the film. However, it is not the only theme explored. The theme of grief is also prevalent, with the director, Lee, emphasizing that it is not always manageable, especially when accompanied by loneliness – a state of mind that seems to consume the character Sin-ae. The exceptional performance of Jeon Do-yeon truly brings these two concepts to life. She portrays the character’s descent and her gradual loss of reason in a remarkable manner, displaying a wide range of psychological states and behaviors throughout the film. As with his previous protagonists, Lee pushes her to her limits, and Jeon delivers brilliantly, anchoring the film in the process.

Furthermore, the film also addresses religion and the idea of cults, with Lee presenting it in a realistic documentary style. Sin-ae briefly finds comfort in the cult after some persistent persuasion from the pharmacist who sees her struggles as a chance to recruit her. However, Sin-ae ultimately falls into madness, subtly reinforcing Lee’s perspective on the matter.

“Secret Sunshine” was, once more, a commercial success, as it sold 1,710,364 tickets nationwide in South Korea and received a number of awards in festivals, including one for Best Actress for Jeon Do-yeon, in Cannes.

Lee Chang-dong had the inspiration for his upcoming movie, “Poetry”, after learning about a true story where a young girl in a small town was assaulted by a group of teenage boys. He personally crafted the main character for Yoon Jung-hee, a prominent Korean actress from the 60s and 70s. Yoon was pleased with the difference in her role compared to her previous works, and Lee spoke highly of their successful collaboration and strong partnership.

Lee discusses how the films “Secret Sunshine” and “Oasis” have simpler stories and themes compared to this movie, which is more complex. Initially, the director did not intend for the movie to have multiple themes, but the plot, which was based on a real-life event of a young girl being raped by students and then committing suicide, required a deeper presentation. Unlike other movies that portray such events in a simplistic manner, this movie follows a different approach as it is not that kind of film. As the director was writing the script, the various elements naturally evolved and became intertwined with the story.

Poems explore the unseen, offering beauty and depth of meaning. This connection between poetry and life is evident in the numerous intertwining stories within the film, where the climax not only portrays a tragic event but also echoes the essence of poetry.”

Poetry (2009)

Mi-ja is an aged woman who takes care of her teenage grandson on her own after his mother left them and moved to another town. She receives a small pension from the government and works as a caregiver for a disabled man, but the income she gets is meager. Additionally, she struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s which affects her memory and causes occasional difficulties. Despite all of this, she remains upbeat and determined, even finding time to attend poetry classes. However, when a dead teenage girl is found and her grandson Jong Wook becomes implicated in a related case along with some of his classmates, Mi-ja realizes she must make tough decisions and raise a large sum of money to save him.

Unable to reword.

The divide between generations is also apparent, as she struggles to comprehend her grandson’s lifestyle while he treats her like a servant. However, they do bond over playing badminton together. This dynamic is portrayed in a scene where Mi-ja attempts to use his computer.

Lee raises an interesting point about society’s perception of justice, specifically how many believe that money can solve any problem.

The movie had the potential to be a powerful drama, but instead, Lee takes an unexpected approach that often brings a touch of humor through two perspectives. The first being the idea of poetry, specifically the lessons and readings that Mi-ja participates in, which may seem unrelated to the main plot but cleverly intertwines towards the end. Through this idea, Lee also shares his perspective on the definition of poetry and the ways in which people can find inspiration.

The second is Mi-ja herself, played with gusto and an almost constant cheerfulness by Yoon Jung-hee, who presents a woman who manages to retain her cheerfulness and smile despite her dire circumstances, in a measured but at the same time impressive performance.

Yoon Jung-hee’s performance earned her numerous accolades in both domestic and international arenas, while the film took home the prestigious Best Screenplay Award at Cannes.

The content was originally released on Hancinema’s website.