On the Criterion edition of Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong describes his creative process as one of utter despair. That should come as no surprise to anyone who knows his work. Since making his feature debut, Green Fish, in 1997 at the age of forty-three (following a well-regarded career as a novelist), the great Korean director has exhibited a taste for darkness. In some of the most unrelentingly grim movies of the past few decades, he’s tackled such themes as his country’s oppressive recent history (Peppermint Candy), the sexual victimization of women (Oasis and Poetry), and the hopelessness that young people feel in an increasingly inscrutable world (Burning). Such ominous subject matter, combined with the level of perfectionism he brings to his art, gives each of his films the sense of having emerged out of a period of great struggle. During the eight years that separate 2010’s Poetry and his latest, the Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning, Lee discarded a number of projects, hoping to land on one that would inspire the most urgency in him. And in the end, it seems his instincts were right: the film has earned him the most widespread acclaim of his career, and its up-to-the-minute references to Donald Trump, economic inequality, toxic masculinity, and the ongoing strife between North and South Korea make it a thriller remarkably attuned to our destructive political moment.
While Lee was in town last week for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—an occasion that marked his first visit to New York in eight years—I took the opportunity to chat with him about his love of cinema and literature and what keeps him going as a storyteller.
What’s the first movie you have a vivid memory of seeing in a theater?
It was when I was about eleven, in the sixties. There was this animated film that came out in Korea about a character named Hong Gil-dong. He’s kind of like the Robin Hood of Korean literature and originates from an old classical novel. Kids my age were all anticipating the release of this movie, so I really wanted to see it too. But my family’s financial situation was such that I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket. My older cousin knew that I wanted to see it, so he gave me money. I went to the theater, and there was a sea of children. I got in the line, and as I got closer and closer to the box office, I had this feeling that I didn’t really want to see the movie anymore. I can’t say for sure why. I had so wanted to see it, but right before I had to buy the ticket, I think I just wanted to break free of those kids and be on my own.
I finally went to the theater next door, which was playing [Richard Brooks’s] Lord Jim. I didn’t even know what the movie was about, but I decided to see it. I was young, so it was difficult for me to comprehend; it was too dark and too scary—the sea and the storm! This was an older, second-run theater, and there weren’t that many people there, and of course absolutely no children. I was sitting in the dark alone, filled with fear and anxiety, and as the movie was coming to its conclusion, I could sense that the main character was headed for an unfortunate fate. It was so hard to endure that! I had gone to movies before, but this was really the first one I had selected and bought a ticket for on my own, and it was this primal experience. The fear and compassion that I felt in that moment left a very deep impression on me.
What kinds of movies did you have access to back then?
If you’re asking about movies that would go on to influence me, I’d say a lot of them were not what you’d call “masterpieces.” Lord Jim is an example of that; though it’s adapted from a great novel, it’s not actually a great film. Neither is Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking, another movie I really liked. It wasn’t until a long time after that that I came to discover what you might call “great” cinema. When I was young, up until I was in my twenties, Korea had a system where every foreign movie had to pass through government approval, like in China, so it was difficult to get access to these films. Then, in the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, I started to see these great works but just on bootlegs. There are of course many directors who influenced me during that time, like Cassavetes.
Before you became a film director, you wrote a number of successful novels. Can you talk about how the two art forms have allowed you to express yourself in different ways?
When I was growing up, my family had to move around a lot, from one boarding room to another. And so I was alone all the time and it wasn’t easy to make friends. I guess I wrote fiction out of a desire to communicate with all those certain somebodies out there, people whose names and faces I didn’t know. That’s the constant through all the genres that I’ve worked in—this desire to communicate. A few years ago, I actually resumed writing fiction. I was working on this novel for a few months, but I realized it was just too time-consuming, and if I kept at it at that pace, I not only wasn’t going to get a novel, I also wouldn’t be able to make movies. I’m always wanting to write, but these days I can barely get a film scenario done.
Literature is different from cinema in that, when I’m writing it, I’m thinking of one reader who will go through a range of emotions with me, whereas with film I’m addressing a larger audience. For me, writing fiction is like writing love letters.
In Poetry and Burning, the protagonists are burgeoning artists, and you can feel their struggle to figure out how the act of art-making is supposed to fit into a world of violence and chaos.
Yes, it’s very important that those characters self-identify as artists. They pose questions to the world as artists. Mi-ja [in Poetry] strives to get one poem out into the world; she’s wrestling with the idea of what true beauty is, even as she’s losing her facility with language due to her dementia. And Jong-su [in Burning] looks at the world and wonders what kind of story would have meaning in it. Both films are about writers embarking on their first works, and it’s important that it’s the first: that’s when art is at its purest—the artist is searching for the art’s essence. In Murakami’s story “Barn Burning,” the lead character is an established writer in his thirties who probably would already be set in his ways, but in the film he’s not a writer yet. He’s young and just starting out, and that makes him more sensitive to the world.
It’s interesting that these two characters are embarking on that first work at very different ages. Have you ever wondered how you might have approached filmmaking differently if you had started, say, in your twenties?
It’s hard to speculate on “ifs,” but if I had grown up as an industry kid who went to film school, I imagine it could have been different. When I look at those around me who did that, for many of them cinema is the most important thing. That’s not the case for me. Something else—I don’t know how to articulate exactly what it is; maybe it’s this idea of communication—is more important to me. Whatever it is, it’s not the art form in itself that I’m thinking about. Most of my colleagues feel they could go and make a movie if the idea was funny enough or interesting enough or manageable enough. But in a sense I do still feel like Jong-su, who is always wondering what story he can write that will reach the world. Even though I’m an older artist and I started out in movies later in life, I still ask that question.
Are there artists who tap into that question in particularly interesting ways for you?
Many of them are artists who don’t make movies the way I do. Some are contemporaries. I’d name Hou Hsiao-hsien; I especially like his earlier films. I feel a personal connection and camaraderie with certain other directors, mostly Asian ones, like Hou, Jia Zhangke, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Whenever I see a good film, especially one that I’m drawn to without knowing the reason, I feel like I’m communing with the director. But to tell the truth, although I do often get motivated and stimulated by movies, it’s really through reading that I get most inspired and get this desire to create. I’m often inspired by young writers, but if I think about who I’ve been reading over the years, the first names that come to mind are Kafka, Chekhov, Faulkner, Hemingway, and, if we get closer to contemporary times, Raymond Carver. You could say that, for me, literature acts as a kind of passageway through which I can think about the world.
Special thanks to Chris Choi for her translation work during the interview.