Chang-dong Lee


(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

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Chang-dong Lee (Korea, 1954) debuted with the film noir Chorok Mulgogi/ Green Fish (1997). The protagonist longs for a simple life in the countryside that would return his family to the lost eden when they were all happy. A femme fatale indirectly drags him into a world that is the exact opposite. But his own world doesn't exist anymore: the city has devoured his idyllic countryside, and his family is broken (one sister is a prostitute, one brother is an alcoholic, one brother is mentally retarded). There is a lot of symbolism in the protagonist's loss of innocence that proceeds in parallel with the destruction of his childhood and with the break-up of his family. A soldier is riding home on a train and spots a woman leaning out of the train platform as if she wanted to jump to her death. Her pink veil flies away and gets comically stuck in the soldier's face. Later he finds her in a train car where some thugs are molesting her. He intervenes and is beaten by them. The girl doesn't say anything and doesn't try to help him. When the thugs get off the train, the soldier follows them and attacks them from behind. He then tries to jump on the train again but the train is already accelerating. He has to walk on foot to his hometown. We learn that his name is Makdong and he has just been discharged. He finds his hometown very different as an urban landscape is rapidly destroying the countryside of his childhood. He sleeps at his mother's place, where his mentally retarded older brother also lives, but now he has to find a job, especially after discovering that his mother is working as a maid to pay the bills. He spends a day helping another brother sell eggs and on the way home they run into corrupt police officers, another comic scene. He finds his sister in a brothel and she, while ashamed, gives him money. He visits his older brother who works as a detective but is also despised by his wife for being an alcoholic. Makdong dreams of reuniting the family on their land and running a restaurant together. One day Makdong runs again into Miae, who has actually tried to contact him by phone (she found his phone number in the bag that he left on the train). Makdong follows her to a night-club where she performs as a singer. After seeing her cry alone, he defends her again from thugs and he gets beaten again. But this time she helps him out: the thugs work for a brutal mobster and she is his girlfriend. The mobster, Big Brother, finds him a job in a parking garage and, after another fight, comes to liking him. The mobster enrolls him to architect a fight with a politician. Makdong slams a door on his own fingers to break them and then provokes the politician into a fight so that he can claim that the politician broke his fingers. Big Brother pays him well for his performance because now the politician can be blackmailed. Makdong defends Miae again when some drunk men hackle her while she is singing. Makdong is now employed with the mobster and witnesses Miae's life as a virtual slave. The thugs are terrified of Big Brother but one day his power gets disputed by a new arrival: Big Brother's old boss has been released from jail and has decided to open a night-club across the street, and has his own gang of thugs. Big Brother attends a party to celebrate the promotion of a friendly politician. When this man starts crying because his wife is having an extramarital affair, Big Brother orders his men to capture the lover, who turns out to be a priest, and they castrate him with a lighter. Alone with Miae on a train, he admits that he is still a virgin and she kisses him passionately. Makdong takes a day off to celebrate his mother's birthday with his siblings. They all drive to the countryside to have a picnic together (Makdong's dream) but the picnic quickly descends into a riot as the detective gets drunk, his wife yells at him, he slaps her in the face, the mentally retarded brother has a fit, and everybody starts beating everybody else. When he returns to the mobster, he is caught into the fight between the two gangs. The other gang beats up his gang and Big Brother is forced to swear allegiance to his old boss, who humiliates him in front of everybody at a dinner. Makdong, having witness another scene in which Miae was abused, burns the pink veil and then brutally kills the new boss in a bathroom. He then calls his mother from a phone booth but can only speak with his mentally retarded brother. Big Brother finds him and shoots him (perhaps because he found out about his love for Miae?) A dying Makdong collapses on the windshield of Big Brother's car, in front of a terrified Miae. Years later Big Brother and a pregnant Miae walk into a countryside restaurant, unaware that it is run by Makdong's family. The family catches and cooks a dinner for the couple. It is only when they are about to leave that Miae recognizes the location as Makdong's land and starts crying. It looks like his dream of reuniting the family came true, although he is not there to enjoy it.

Bakha Satang/ Peppermint Candy (1999) tells its story in reverse chronology, released one year before the more famous Memento (2000). It is basically six movies into one, carefully scripted in a brutal Tarantino-esque style. It is both the story of a soul as it transitions from innocence to experience and a social fresco of the nation as it transitioned from poverty and dictatorship to democracy and wealth. Mostly, it is a terrifying psychological study. And there are two other psychological studies hidden beneath it: the frustrated wife who initially loved him but was never loved by him, and the woman who loved him till the end despite being rejected unjustly. We meet them when they have already become something terminal (an adulterer, a dying woman) and only at the end of the movie do we realize who they really were. The film is wrapped in a general sense of failure and impossibility that feels like a shroud on the coffin of the man who commits suicide in the first episode.

In 1999 a man wearing a jacket, Yong-ho, walks in a weird manner towards a group of people who are having a party by a river. It turns out that they are celebrating a 20 year reunion after graduating from school, and they recognize him as one of their schoolmates. Yong-ho is clearly tense and neurotic. He attempts to sing something but they take the microphone away from him. He wanders like a zombie towards the river and enters the waters. He walks into the waters towards a railway bridge, climbs the bridge and waits for the train. The others keep dancing except one man who desperately calls for Yong-ho to come down. The train comes and Yong-ho faces it screaming "I am going back".
A flashback shows him driving in the rain. The radio is announcing the reunion picnic party. He stops to purchase a gun illegally from two people on a motorcycle. He first uts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger, but the gun is not loaded, then drives to a garage where he tries to shoot somebody but misses. Then a police officer asks to see his identification but he runs away after pushing him away. He knocks at a woman's door, Hong-ja (presumably his ex-wife), but she is reluctant to open the door. She keeps the latch on and only allows him to pet the dog. He drives to the miserable shack where he lives. The rain is leaking inside. A stranger has tracked him down. Yong-ho pulls out the gun and tells him that he has spent his last money buying the gun to kill the business partner who ran away with his money and ruined his life. Yong-ho aims his gun at his own head but the stranger calmly tells him that he is the husband of his former girlfriend Sunim, who wants to see him before dying. They get into the car, where a child has been waiting, and drive to the hospital. Yong-ho takes a box of peppermint candies with him. At the hospital the husband is told that his wife has lost consciousness but Yong-ho still wants to see her. He tells the comatose woman that he has brought her the peppermint candies that she sent him with every letter when he was in the army. Then he starts sobbing and walks out. She understood because a tear runs down her cheek. When he leaves the hospital, the husband gives him a manual camera that she had saved for him for 20 years. Yong-ho, who is broke, sells the camera to a second-hand shop. The store owner notices that the roll of film is still inside. It presumably contains the last pictures that Yong-ho and his girlfriend took together. He pulls out the film and cries.
Another flashback shows Yong-ho in 1994 working in a nice office and making a lot of money. A detective calls him. Yong-ho drives to an apartment and finds his wife with another man. He briefly beat them up but then just lets them go and casually asks his wife how she's going to get home. Then he walks to his car where his own lover is waiting: his secretary. They have sex in the car. One day his wife has prepared dinner, cooking the whole day, for him and some friends, including his secretary/lover. He is clearly not grateful but very annoyed by her. She prays before eating and starts sobbing. He leaves the house. All of this in front of the guests.
Another flashback (each flashback is introduced by the camera sliding on railway tracks) shows us Yong-ho in 1987, eating with his wife. She is pregnant and she looks happy, but he is pensive and unfriendly. In a barber shop he listens to the radio talking about student demonstrations. Outside he sees a man that he recognizes and who tries to escape. He takes him to the police station where he works as a detective and beats him brutally because the man doesn't want to inform about his boss' whereabouts. It takes a while, but eventually the man talks and Yong-ho can travel to the city where the mobster is hiding. At night Yong-ho walks around alone, looking for Sunim, who lives in that city. He ends up chatting with a girl who runs a food joint and she offers to be Sunim for just one night, so they walk to her place and have sex; but it is a depressing experience for him. His unhappiness is so palpable that it makes her cry, despite the fact that they don't know each other. The following morning Yong-ho behaves like a zombie. His two fellow cops find and arrest the wanted man (with the usual brutality) but Yong-ho offers no help. The girl waits in vain for him to come back.
The fourth flashback (introduced again by the camera sliding over railway tracks) shows Yong-ho in 1984. He is working in a police station and witnesses fellow cops torture a suspect. He is shy, just released from the army after four years of service, and before that he worked in a factory. The other cops want him to learn how to interrogate suspects and ask him to finish the torture of the man who has been undressed and tied. When he is home, he has fun teaching a restaurant waitress, a teenager, how to ride the bicycle. One day Sunim shows up. She has returned to town and found where he lives. She is sweet to him, but he is rude. He touches the waitress' tight to show that he doesn't care about Sunim. Sunim swallows a tear and shows him her present for him, the camera of the previous scene. He then walks her to the train and returns the camera to her without a word. We are not told why he holds a grudge towards her. That evening he keeps riding the bicycle in circles in front of the restaurant and then even inside the restaurant where his friends are having fun. Then he starts a fight with them in front of the terrified waitress, impersonating a military officer. But the waitress gladly sleeps with him, and it looks like it's her first time. Before sex, she asks him to pray with her, and we guess that she's Hong-ja, his future wife.
Railway tracks. Now it's 1980, the beginning of his military service. Sunim comes to the barracks to visit Yong-ho , but the country is under martial law and visits are not allowed. The soldiers are quickly loaded on trucks and dispatched to quell a student demonstration. Yong-ho sees Sunim walking on the road but doesn't react. She will never know that he saw her. The soldier attack the students and chase them like dogs. Yong-ho is badly wounded in a train station and starts crying like a baby. His sargeant tries to carry him away but eventually leaves him behind in the deserted train station. Alone and scared, he hears a noise and grabs the machine gun. It is only a weeping teenager who is trying to get home. Yung-ho is shaking and accidentally pulls the trigger. He deliriously keeps telling the dead girl to go home.
Railway tracks. A group of students is walking by the river of the first scene. Yong-ho is one of them, Sunim is one of them. He pretends to take a picture of her with his hands. She offers him peppermint candies. He gives her a flower. He feels like he's been there before. The students sit in a circle near the railway bridge of the first scene and sing together. Yong-ho sings with them, smiling. Then he walks away and stares at the sky, perhaps a premonition that life is not so beautiful as it looks like when you are young.

There are really two interlocked stories in Oasis (2002): a love story between two people who cannot live a normal life; and the story of how both the retarded boy and the spastic girl, considered useless, have been abused by their siblings.

It is cold outside. A man wearing only a tshirt walks off a bus and asks a stranger for directions. Eventually Jong-du reaches a multi-story building and looks for his friends but apparently they moved. Jong-du gets some food for free at a neighborhood store. The owner has obviously realized that Jong-du is a penniless bum. Jong-du then gets into a phone booth and begs two high-school girls for coins. He eats at a restaurant and, not having money to pay, tries to call his younger brother, Jong-sae. The police come and arrest him. He has a criminal record and was in jail for over two years. He just got out of jail and has nowhere to go: his family disappeared and they changed their phone number. The police track down his younger brother Jong-sae who comes and picks up Jong-du. His brother looks annoyed, not excited, to see him. Even his mother is not too happy, more concerned about where to put him. Jong-du is wearing summer clothes because it was summer when they jailed him and that's all he had at the time. Jong-du is a bit retarded, and he smiles all the time. His older brother Jong-il, who already takes care of their mother, gives him a bed and helps him find a job delivering food on a motorcycle. Jong-du has a plan though. After the job interview at the restaurant, Jong-du looks for an address. He finds the place but inside there is only a spastic woman, constantly victim of convulsions. A couple walks in. Jong-du is all friendly but there are the son Han Sang-Shik the man he killed in a hit and run accident and his wife. The man unceremoniously kicks him out. However, Jong-du cannot help noticing that they are moving out, leaving behind the disabled woman, Gong-Ju, who can't even stand up. Inside she is playing with the butterflies sitting on the floor. One night, distracted by a film-making crew, Jong-du crashes on the highway and destroys the motorcycle. Back home his brother scolds him angrily and his sister-in-law tells him crudely that life was easier for them when he was in jail and out of trouble. Jong-du returns to deliver flowers to Gong-ju. The neighbors are, in theory, taking of her, or, at least, they have the keys to her apartment. Despite the fact that she cannot articulate a word and cannot control the movements of her arms, he finds her attractive. Jong-du tries to rape her but her convulsions suddenly stop because she has fainted, and he realizes what beastly thing he is doing. He leaves her on the floor of the bathroom after waking her up with cold water, and walks out angry. After he leaves, the disabled woman watches as the neighbors make love and tries to use lipstick on her lips. Her brother comes to pick her up and drives her to his new place. We soon understand why: officials from the city are coming to check the nice apartment that the city provides to the disabled woman. In other words, her brother and his wife took the nice apartment that was meant for Gong-ju and left her alone in the old lousy apartment, paying a little bit of money to the neighbors to watch over her. The moment her brother drops her back to what is basically her jail, Gong-ju finds a way to call Jong-du (he had left his business card on her mirror): she is crouching on the floor and crying. He rushes to her place and they have a real conversation. He even makes her smile. He calls her "princess" and she calls him "general". The friednship changes Jong-du who suddenly asks his older brother to work with him fixing cars. Jong-du and Gong-ju even go out on a date. He carries her on his back and pushes his wheelchair. But the restaurant's owner refuses to serve them food and asks them to leave. Her spasms attract the curious and morbid attention of the other customers. Jong-du ends up taking her to his brother's garage and ordering noodles. When they get stuck in traffic on the highway, he carries her out of the car and dances with her among the cars. He drems that she is normal and they are dancing for real. Unfortunately, he took a customer's car. When he gets back to the shop, his brother is angry: Jong-du doesn't even have a driver's license after it was revoked. His older brother beats him with stick as if he were a child. Next, Jong-du thinks of taking his girlfriend to his mother's birthday party. The sight of Gong-ju's uncontrollable spasms ruins the party. His older brother thinks that Jon-du is taking revenge on him, and now we learn that Jong-du took the blame for a death that his older brother caused (Jong-du was a useless idiot whereas Jong-il was already married with a child). Nonetheless Jong-du persists and even tries to have the wheelchaired girl in the family picture. When Jong-il pushes her aside, Jong-du leaves with her. His mother is having a terrible birthday. Next, he takes her to a karaoke bar. More fun ensues when he carries her down the stairs to the subway (and dreams that she's normal and can sing with him). Back home, they finally have sex; but just then her brother and sister-in-law come to visit. Finding a naked woman on top of her, they think she is raping her and call the police. Jong-du is initially not afraid, because Gong-ju can speak to his defense, but Gong-ju cannot speak at all when she is under stress. She cannot tell the truth to the police. She cannot explain to her own family. The stronger her convulsions, the more outraged her brother is with the presumed rapist, but she's just trying to explain that he's not a rapist at all. Jong-du escapes and desperately tries to see her, even climbing the tree outside her window (and falling off it), but is arrested again. He will write letters to her from prison.

Milyang/ Secret Sunshine (2007), adapted from Lee Chung-joon's novel "The Story of Insects", is the psychological portrait of a woman's nervous breakdown. It is basically three movies in one: the first one simply depicts the domestic life of a young widow, the second one is almost a comedy about a man's clumsy courtship, and the last one is a story of pure madness. The third part is also the most poignant, and not only for the bravura of the actress (Do-yeon Jeon). The defiance of God seems more rational than the worship of God at this point in her life, and the way she turns into a sworn enemy of the church, even seducing one of its leaders, follows naturally from the premises.

A young widow, Shin-ae, with a child moves from the metropolis to a provincial town. The first person she meets is the man who comes to help her when her car breaks down just before entering town, a mechanic named Jong-chan. She opens a piano school and intends to build a home. Her husband, who died in a car accident, always wanted to move back there, his hometown (whose name in Chinese means "Secret Sunshine"), and raise their son there. She wants to fulfill his dream. While she is distracted by a very religious pharmacist, her boy Jun disappears. She starts crying, looking truly desperate, but he's just hiding and she knows it: it's a game that they play all the time. Her brother comes to visit her. They discuss their father who is upset with her. Her brother reminds her that her husband cheated on her, but she never believed it and changes subject. Her brother also tells the good mechanic who has been helping her that he has no chance to win her heart. It's a town in which everybody knows everybody else. They all pretend to be friends but one day she overhears women gossiping about her. The mechanic is also helping her buy a plot of land. One night she joins the other single ladies of the town for to go to a disco and karaoke club. Back home, she can't find Jun, and she thinks he's playing the usual hiding game. Then the phone rings and she listens petrified: someone kidnapped Jun. She considers asking the mechanic for help but then decides to act by herself. She withdraws money from the bank, puts it in a shopping bag, takes some out, and drops it where the kidnapper told her too. She is so distressed that she almost runs over some children crossing the street. The kidnapper calls her complaining that the money is not enough, she pleads that it's all she has, but he knows that she was trying to buy land for much more money. Obviously, thanks to gossips, everyone in town knows that she is rich. She turns to the police but it's too late: Jun is found dead, his body dumped in a reservoir. The police find the killer (we are not told how but it may have to do with a troubled teenage girl whom she sees crying in front of her piano studio, perhaps the daughter of the killer). Her family comes to the cremation and granma accuses her of being a jinx. Shin-Ae cannot even cry. She decides to remain in town and continues giving piano lessons, but she's slowly breaking down, even crying in public. The mechanic continues his polite and discreet courtship, but she is now rude to him. Instead, she joins the sect of the religious pharmacist, still followed in vain (and a bit comically) by the stubborn mechanic. She suddenly finds happiness, or at least peace, in the church singing. One day she sees the troubled teenager being beaten by a punk and doesn't do anything to help her. She just drives away, but in a state of shock. Again, she almost runs over two pedestrians. Determined to follow the Christian religion to the letter, she decides to forgive her son's killer. The loyal mechanic Jong-chan accompanies her to prison. However, a surprise awaits her: the killer has converted himself to Christianity and feels that God has forgiven him even before she forgave him. On the way out, she faints.
She soon plunges back into desperation, even resenting God's injustice. Only Jong-chan can stand her hysterical fits. She is even caught shoplifting. Then she disrupts an outdoor Christian festival by playing rock music on the sound system so loud to drown the voice of the preacher, and the song's lyrics say "All is a lie". She starts having hallucinations. One night she believes the killer calls her again to tell her that he kidnapped Jun, and she wakes up Jong-chan asking him for help. She even tries to seduce the pharmacist's husband, tempting him on purpose to test his faith; and he succumbs easily. The camera shows the scene of them having sex upside down, with her face looking up to the sky as if making fun of God's disciples. He cannot come because he feels that God is watching them. Later she offers her body to the man who has longed for it ever since, Jong-chan, but, instead of rejoicing, he gets mad. She runs away. Walking home in the middle of the road like a madwoman she tells God that she won't lose to him. Now she's obsessed with the Christian cult in the other way: she wants to sabotage them. Back at home she slits her wrist while staring up, smiling and asking God "Are you looking?" Then she walks out in the street bleeding and screaming. Passers-by watch speechless and someone calls the police.
After a period spent at the hospital, Jong-chan and her brother come to pick her up. It turns out that Jong-chan has continued going to church even after Shin-Ae changed attitude towards them. He has become honestly religious. And his love sounds sincere too: he brings her flowers and is still cheerful even though she acts like a zombie. She asks for a haircut. Jong-chan takes her to a salon. It turns out that, by accident, the hairdresser is the troubled teenager, recently released from juvenile penitentiary (for being an accessory to the murder of the child? the daughter of the killer?). She takes it as a joke from God and runs away. When the loyal Jong-chan joins her at home, she's cutting her hair by herself (an enigmatic ending that might point to a rebirth as well as to a deepening depression).

Shi/ Poetry (2010) is the story of an unremarkable woman who becomes a witness to a terrible crime. That experience is devastating at many levels: she is ashamed of the selfish grandson who doesn't seem to feel any emotions, she is angry that society is trying to buy the silence of the victim's family, and she identify with the victim. As she becomes a new person through that experience, she turns from accidental witness into protagonist of a moral renewal. The horror of the situation (both the death of a girl and the way society tries to hide the crime) contrasts with the disarming lightness of the director.

Children are playing by the bank of a river when they see a body floating on the water. An elderly woman, Mija, visits her doctor for a minor problem with her arm, but the doctor gets more concerned that she forgets words and recommends hospital tests. Mija walks outside talking on the cell phone to her daughter when she sees the ambulance delivering the dead body of the girl whose body we've seen floating in the river. The mother of the girl is torn by grief. The elderly lady works part-time as a maid. Her duties include washing a wealthy elderly man who is partially paralyzed since suffering a stroke and can barely mutter words. He gives her small tips as they were big money. His own daughter-in-law, Mija's friend, makes fun of how stingy he is. Minutes later the elderly woman can't remember the word for "wallet", another sign that her memory is deteriorating. Mija tells her friend about the girl brought to the hospital: apparently the girl committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. She gets home and asks her teenage grandson Wook who goes to the same school in the same grade, but he claims he doesn't know anything. Then she forces him to play with her in the street because she needs to exercise. She also decides to take a literary class, whose students are mostly middle-aged women. Maybe it's her subconscious way to fight dementia. The teacher asks them to focus on an apple and learn to "see" things, not just look at them. He gives them a homework: write a poem, and for all of them it will be the first time in their life. The father of one of Wook's classmate takes Mija to an impromptu meeting of the parents. It turns out that six male students, including Wook, raped the her who committed suicide for several months in a lab of the school. The girl is the daughter of a single mother who lives in a farm. They discuss in a very practical tone how to pay compensation money to the mother so she'll keep silent about the incident. They want to protect the future of their children and the school wants to save its reputation. Even the police have not arrested anybody yet to defend not the victim but the right of the well-respected middle-class families to find a private settlement with the family of the victim. None of the parents seems to be overly worried about punishing their children. Shocked, she leaves the meeting and walks outside to take notes for her poem. In any event, she cannot afford to pay the amount that the others agreed. She is raising Wook after his mother left town, and her income is very modest. At home she does not confront him, and he doesn't show any sense of guilt. She attends the mass for the girl and steals a picture of her. Under the shower she finally weeps as if it were her own daughter. Her grandson is a spoiled sullen brat who watches tv and shows no respect for his granma. She finally confronts him but he just doesn't say a word. Meanwhile she keeps attending the literary classes. Each person has to talk about the significant moments of their lives. The teacher told them to learn to "see" things and now she pays attention to nature, whether a flower or a bird. The dead girl seems to be constantly in Mija's mind as she walks around town, watches kids play, and visits the lab in which the rape occurred. One day, while she's washing the old man, she realizes that he's having an erection. Scared, she quits, ignoring his pleas: he wants to have sex one more time before he dies. The hospital tests reveal that she's at the early stage of dementia. She doesn't tell her daughter, nor anyone else. Nor has she mentioned the rape to her daughter. She takes a taxi to the bus terminal and then a bus to the fateful bridge. Whether she has an inspiration or just enters a compassionate mood, she returns to the old man, gives me a pill to excite him sexually, and has sex with him in the bathtub.
The dead girl's mom does not want to settle. The men suggest that Mija tries to find an agreement. Mija visits the mother in her farm but does not bring up the topic. After a dinner with aspiring poets she cries alone in the dark. A former cop whom she has critized for mocking poetry comes out to keep her company. Finally the fathers of the kids manage to convince the mother to accept compensation money, but Mija does not have her share. She visits the old man and blackmails him to get cash. Maybe this was the motive that prompted her to have sex with him even if at the time she didn't ask for any money. Then she delivers the money and walks away. Mija tells her daughter to come as soon as possible. Then she walks outside to play with Wook. While they are playing, the former cop approaches them and takes Wook's place while two men escort Wook away, presumably to jail.
The last day of the literary class has come. She has completed her poem. The poem is read by a girl we cannot see, presumably the dead girl. We see her schoolmates boarding a bus. And we see the girl approaching the handrail on the bridge.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )