Lee Chang-Dong Movies and why you should watch them

PARASITE by Bong Joon-ho deserves every bit of praise and attention it got. But there is another filmmaker from South Korea that film fans should become familiar with. His name is Lee Chang-dong.

Lee Chang-dong is the writer/director of BURNING, SECRET SUNSHINE and POETRY among several other brilliant movies over the last few decades. He has competed at Cannes and even won several lifetime achievement awards but has remained relatively unknown to most Western film fans.

It goes without saying, the man makes some great movies. The question isn’t so much if you should watch them. It’s where to begin. This post will hopefully help out with that dilemma and motivate you to get viewing.

2018’s BURNING is far and away the most accessible of Lee Chang-dong’s films. That is not to say it’s a typical, standard Western-style film. It’s not. But its pacing, thriller elements, and style make it the perfect gateway into his body of work. It is a noticeable shift in style from his previous movies, although clearly that of the same filmmaker.

That stylistic shift might have something to do with the eight-year gap between BURNING and his previous film, POETRY. A break that was allegedly forced upon him when he fell out of favor with the South Korean government and was blacklisted. In any case, the result of those changes makes BURNING a slightly different sort of film from its predecessors.

For those of you who haven’t seen BURNING, it is currently streaming in the U.S. on Netflix. The plot is about two men and a woman and the relationship between the three of them.

It is very loosely based on the short story “BARN BURNING” by Haruki Murakami. In fact, the first half of BURNING captures Murakami’s mixture of melancholy, yearning and everyday magic tinged by an underlying sadness in a way that no other Murakami film adaptation has ever accomplished before. Not even the adaptation of NORWEGIAN WOOD.

The next couple paragraphs contain spoilers. So, I shall leave it to you if you choose to continue or skip down the the next section. BURNING takes a very disturbing turn of direction about midway through the film. The female character disappears. Not only does she disappear, there are ever-increasing hints that one of the two main male characters killed her.

The remainder of the film is reminiscent of THE VANISHING, the Dutch film made in 1988 by George Sluizer. It is as much about the main character’s obsession about finding out what happened as a more traditional mystery/crime thriller about tracking down the bad guy.

BURNING is intense and shocking. And there are some great visual moments. It’s a great movie and a great introduction to Lee Chang-dong. However, my personal favorite of Lee Chang-dong’s films is the one he made eight years earlier, POETRY.

POETRY was made in 2010 and won the Best Screenplay award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The story revolves around a grandmother struggling financially and with the onset of dementia as she tries to raise her teenage grandson.

The grandmother is played by Yoon Jeaong-hee after a sixteen year absence from the screen. She is amazing. There are many shots of her just doing her daily activities.Yet, they carry a weight and implication far beyond the surface image thanks to her and the skills of the director.

This paragraph will give away a major plot point. However, it is key to discussing the film. POETRY is not just a film about an old woman struggling with Alzheimer’s as some of the online and streaming summaries would suggest. Something truly terrible happens in the film. A teenage girl commits suicide. And the reason she did it was that the main character’s teenage grandson, along with a number of other boys, repeatedly bullied and raped her.

POETRY clearly feels related to BURNING. But it is a much more raw, slowly paced, oblique film which takes big dramatic moments and treats them in a very different way. It is not “gripping” so much as mesmerizing. A film that invites you into the full world of its main character no matter how small or dull those moments may seem at the time. In fact, it feels painfully real.

POETRY is by no means a “slice of life” film that is satisfied with just the expression of the day to day. It performs an almost miraculous transformation of those countless small moments shared with the viewer into a very cohesive whole. Its ending is both subtle and overwhelmingly powerful. It also, in hindsight, feels almost inevitable.

Oddly, Bong Joon-ho, the director of PARASITE, released a film with a very similar plot in 2009, called MOTHER. These two films, however, could not be more different. Whereas MOTHER is a skilled combination of drama, thriller, horror and even comedy, POETRY remains deeply grounded in reality. If there were ever two films which showed the contrast in directorial interests and styles between Lee Chang-dong and Bong Joon-Ho, POETRY and MOTHER would be them.

Like POETRY, 2007’s SECRET SUNSHINE also deals with a horrific crime, loss and grief. However, it treats these issue slightly differently.

The plot of SECRET SUNSHINE is about a woman who moves to a small, rural town with her young son after her husband dies in a car accident. It is the town that her husband grew up in and they had always discussed returning there someday as a family. She knows no one and her new lifestyle is vastly different from her previous one in bustling Seoul.

Major spoiler alert..there is a moment in the film which changes everything. Her son is abducted and soon found dead. The shock of the tragedy sends her reeling. It is while in this state of misery and shock that she finds comfort in the Evangelical church which dominates her small town. She is soon “born again” and acts as if life is fine.

Eventually, she sees the hypocrisy of the teachings of her church and is fully enveloped by loss and tragedy. Daily life becomes a battle. Yet, she endures. Deeply damaged, and a shell of her former self, she somehow survives and keeps going, even without the hollow words of the church. That’s it. That is how the film ends. A woman just surviving through another day.

SECRET SUNSHINE is clearly not an easy film. It’s also very slowly paced. Yet, like POETRY, it adds up to more than its individual moments. It is also interesting in that it is one of the few Korean films I am familiar with that questions the power and message of the Evangelical church in that country.

SECRET SUNSHINE is not as slick and thriller-like as BURNING. It’s also not as complex in the way its story is revealed as POETRY. Yet, it’s a very, very powerful film that is well worth seeking out.

Then again, most films by Lee Chang-dong are.