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.
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