Trailer Premiere: Lee Chang-dong at Metrograph

Lee Chang-dong

Long before he directed his first feature at the age of forty-three, Lee Chang-dong was a respected literary figure in South Korea. His first novel, Chonri, was published in 1983, and in 1992, he won the Korea Times Literary Prize for his short-story collection There’s a Lot of Shit in Nokcheon. Writing and directing plays eventually led him to cinema. From Friday through April 28, New York’s Metrograph will present Novel Encounters: The Films of Lee Chang-dong, and we’re delighted to be able to premiere the trailer for the series below. “The six films curated for this retrospective each serve as vessels for my earnest contemplations on life, society, and humanity, each in their own way,” Lee tells Joan MacDonald in Forbes.

Along with the six features Lee has directed, Metrograph will also screen two more that he wrote, Ounie Lecomte’s A Brand New Life (2009), the story of a nine-year-old sent to a Catholic orphanage—in his review for Screen, Jonathan Romney called it “a heart-tugger rather than a full-on tearjerker”—and July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (2014), starring Bae Doo-na as a police officer who faces the scrutiny of the locals in a remote seaside town when she takes in a troubled teen. The main attraction of the series, though, will undoubtedly be the new restorations of Lee’s first three features—Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (1999), and Oasis (2002)—and Poetry (2010), for which Lee won the award for Best Screenplay in Cannes.

Darcy Paquet—the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves and an actor and translator who has worked with Bong Joon Ho (Parasite), Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), and Hong Sangsoo (The Woman Who Ran)—has noted that the “stark mood and controlled filmmaking” in Green Fish “made an immediate impression on local critics.” Makdong (Han Suk-gyu) returns to his hometown after completing his compulsory two-year military service, finds no work, and falls in with a band of mobsters on the outskirts of Seoul. “Most striking about Green Fish,” writes Paquet, “as with Lee’s subsequent features, is its emotional force, which is expressed while abstaining from conventional melodramatic techniques.”

Peppermint Candy tracks the life of Yongho (Sol Kyung Gu) across twenty years of South Korean history, from the late 1970s through the end of the 1990s—in reverse chronological order. “The end has a quiet, heartbreaking power,” wrote A. O. Scott in the New York Times in 2001, “because the audience knows what the young man does not: that in the next two decades he will drift from youthful optimism into brutal, callous manhood and cynical, ultimately despairing middle age.”

In Oasis, Jong-du (Sul Kyung-gu), socially awkward and fresh out of prison after serving a sentence for killing a man while driving drunk, falls in love with his victim’s daughter, Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a woman with severe cerebral palsy. In 2004, Michael Atkinson wrote in the Village Voice that Oasis is, “at first blush, one of those occasional miracles that approach leapingly scandalous material with a superhuman charity and somehow dodge charges of tastelessness . . . No movie in recent memory has translated so clearly the secret language of lovers normally lost on the rest of the world.”

Secret Sunshine (2007) is “a melodrama about suffering, salvation, and the dangerously blurred line between belief and madness,” wrote Dennis Lim in 2011. Recently widowed piano teacher Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) moves with her young son from Seoul to her late husband’s hometown only to be gutted by fresh tragedy. One local, notes Lim, “coolly equates her agnosticism with a lack of imagination: ‘Maybe you believe only in what you can see. You doubt what you can’t see.’ It’s a challenge the filmmaker has posed to himself, perhaps, as well as to his heroine, a conundrum that cuts to the heart of matters of faith, and matters of cinema too: on the one hand, the need and desire to find meaning beyond the merely visible; on the other, the impossibility of certainty in the absence of evidence.”

In 2010, Yun Jung-hee, who had appeared in well over three hundred films since the late 1960s, was showered with critical accolades for her performance as Mija, a woman caring for her troubled grandson while facing down a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in Poetry. “The importance of seeing, seeing the world deeply, is at the heart of this quietly devastating, humanistic work,” wrote the NYT’s Manohla Dargis in 2011. “She seems so unremarkable, this woman with her white hats, tidily arranged scarves and vanity. But like this subtle, transfixing film, she draws you in.”

Burning (2018), an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, stars Yoo Ah-in as an aspiring writer who strikes up a romance with a childhood friend (Jeon Jong-seo). She returns from a trip to Africa with a new friend (Steven Yeun), a mysterious and wealthy playboy. “By its conclusion,” writes Niles Schwartz at Slant, “Burning has broken through its zero-sum late-capitalist confines in order to invest aesthetic grandeur to the quotidian, and in disquietingly sublime fashion.”

“My films can be said to be stories about individuals fighting to find the meaning of their lives,” Lee tells Phoebe Chen in Metrograph Journal. “They are the weak, yet they engage in a reckless and foolish fight with the absolute strong. They fight against a society’s moral insensitivity and hypocritical ideology (Poetry and Oasis), they fight against the inequality of the mysterious world (Burning), and they don’t mind fighting with God like the heroine of Secret Sunshine. The main character of Peppermint Candy even stands up to the meaninglessness of time like trying to stop a running train. This fight itself is their identity and their agency.”

Metrograph Journal is also running one of Lee’s short stories, “Little Yellow-Green Bird,” which appears in English for the first time. The story is translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, who worked with Yoosup Chang on the translation of “Snowy Day,” which the New Yorker ran last year. In 2018, the literary journal Asymptote published Soyoung Kim’s translation of Lee’s “On Destiny.”

“For me, writing fiction is like writing love letters,” Lee told Andrew Chan in 2019. “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.”

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