The Poetic Progress of Lee Chang-dong, Korea’s Elite Director

This essay originally appeared on the Kino Lorber Blog and is republished here with the permission of Kino Lorber.

Of the Fantastic Four that have emerged globally as the big guns of the so-called Korean New Wave, Lee Chang-dong seems to be the least audience-friendly, at least if you judge by receipts. Bong Joon-ho has his unerring sense of offbeat pulpitude, Park Chan-wook has his poetic-Guignol-in-extremis m.o., Hong Sang-soo has his neo-Rohmerian arthouse quasi-romanticism – what does Lee have? In actuality, it’s tough to suss out exactly why Lee hasn’t drawn the same attention as his compatriots – his movies are epic melodramas, sometimes controversial in incident but never arcane or patience-demanding. Equally devoted to lyrical visual ideas and the immediacy of character under ferocious pressure, Lee is an expert storyteller, and his unpretentious handheld camera style is completely in fashion. His films are demanding, but in a way audiences like – emotionally, empathically, vicariously. So what’s the beef?

It’s not as if critics haven’t noticed Lee – Oasis (2002) is still considered by many the Korean masterpiece to beat, a cascading wonder that begins unlikely enough with a possibly sociopathic attempted rape of a handicapped girl, and then novas into both a lacerating portrait of social rot and an inspiring romance. It is not a film easily forgotten, but none of Lee’s films are, starting with Peppermint Candy (1999), a rueful panorama of recent Korean history that became a generational touchstone at home, and which initiated Lee’s web of strategies – his films are long (all well over two hours except his freshman effort, 1997′s Green Fish), expansive and exhaustive, Cassavetesian even, seemingly encompassing a fourth act somewhere in the middle where an ordinary film would’ve briskly settled for three, so the full range of ironies and devastations can be squeezed from his flammable stories. Secret Sunshine (2007) may be the most eccentric rendering of grief in movie history, as a young mother runs from widowhood and, after her son is killed, embarks on an odyssey of walking death, beatific Christian born-again-ness, crucifying disillusionment (Lee’s movies are filthy with Holy Shit scenes and worst-case scenarios), self-destruction and, finally, mysterious resolve.

Poetry (2010) is pure Lee, and at first blush unusually gentle. Veteran Korean star Yun Jung-hee, something like the Korean Ellen Burstyn and long retired when Lee seduced her into making the film, stars as 66-year-old Mija, a rather feather-headed widow-grandmother stuck in a small town nurturing her ne’er-do-well teenage grandson (Lee David), and caring for a wealthy stroke victim to earn cash. Mija is a distinctive piece of work – like so many of Lee’s characters, she’s not terribly sophisticated but you can’t quite pin her down, and you’ve never seen anyone in a movie quite like her. Dreamy but practical, easily hypnotized by flowers, in love with floppy hats and floral print outfits, cultured but actually not very educated, Mija is a caterpillar who forgot to metamorphose into a butterfly, and implicit in her every action is a quiet resistance to the disappointment of her life. So she decides to take a poetry-writing class, because “I like flowers and say odd things,” considering poetry not as a cultural craft (she never reads any), but as a way to rescue her life from mundaneity.


Mija’s slowly onsetting Alzheimer’s disease deeply muddies her waters, but not quite as badly as a lunch to which she is brought by the fathers of her grandson’s friends – who inform her that the drowned schoolgirl we saw floating down the river in the film’s very first scene committed suicide because the sons were all gangraping her for months. Now, the parents have banded together to cover it up, lest their children’s futures be ruined, a situation that requires a mountainous infusion of cash, to pay off the victim’s mother. Cut to Mija, who only wants to sit on a park bench haloed by songbirds and poetic auras.

True to Lee’s form, that is only the beginning of Mija’s journey, which in some ways echoes the guilty search for responsibility and meaning of the wife in Raymond Carver’s galvanic short story “So Much Water, So Close to Home,” and at the same time serves as a sort of B-side to Bong’s Mother, which also features an unassuming and mentally compromised matriarch taking on the sins of the young. Compare, though, the two films’ scenes in which the respective mothers attend the victims’ funerals – in Bong, it’s an occasion for a quasi-comic brawl, but Lee hardly takes his camera off Yun; Mija might seem to be in a state of denial, but we see her crack for a microsecond of semi-naked despair as she realizes she shouldn’t be in the church (schoolgirls in the next pew are staring and pointing), and hauls herself up to her feet to leave.

Without giving up too many of Lee’s silent-napalm-strike moments and searing poetical juxtapositions – how the Alzheimer’s impacts the cover-up, how the need for money changes Mija’s relationship with the horny stroke victim, how her tenuous connection to the grandson reverbs from the girl’s death, how the effort to write just a single poem shapes her interface with a thoroughly amoral world – let’s just say Poetry has the breadth and moral weight of a great contemporary novel, and not one that’s been condensed for convenience and concision. Still, the final passage takes literal flight in ways only cinema can manage.

Michael Atkinson is an American writer, poet and film critic. He  has contributed to SPiN, The Guardian, The Believer, the Village Voice, Moving Image Source, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Interview and numerous other publications.


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