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May 2 - 4

A Rough Transcendence: The Films of Lee Chang-dong

Korean cinema has recently seen a renaissance at all levels of filmmaking, from the popular to the experimental. While gonzo filmmakers like Kim Ki-duk (The Island, Samaritan Girl) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) have gotten a lot of attention with their violent thrillers, and Hong Sang-soo wins converts by making sophisticated examinations of relations between the sexes that owe a certain amount to French cinema, Lee Chang-dong (b. 1954) continues in a direction pioneered by such celebrated directors as Im Kwon-taek and Park Kwang-su, that of a thoughtful cinema devoted to examining social and historical problems as they intersect with the lives of particular individuals, realistically presented. At the same time, Lee ups the ante from his predecessors by focusing on ambiguous protagonists caught in dire situations.

Lee began his career as a novelist. His first filmmaking experience came when he worked on two acclaimed films directed by Park Kwang-su: as a co-writer on To the Starry Island (1993) and as sole screenwriter on A Single Spark (1995). Lee set aside his filmmaking career in 2003 and 2004 to accept the post of Minister of Culture under President Roh Moo-hyun. Although the films he’s directed remain little-seen in this country, Lee is recognized internationally as one of the leading East Asian filmmakers of his generation.  Secret Sunshine and Oasis are Lee’s best-known films and are justly celebrated as moving portraits of the fragility of human relationships and faith today. However, Lee’s first two films are just as remarkable with their emphasis on the human costs in South Korea‘s struggle from authoritarianism towards unbridled capitalism.

What is remarkable about Lee Chang-dong’s films is their ability to be both intelligent and emotionally affecting while only skirting the kind of melodrama so prevalent in Korean cinema. Much has been made of Lee as a sort of latter-day Bresson, but for all that his films take up questions of suffering and redemption, they remain rooted in the here-and-now of contemporary Korea.

This program is co-presented with the Korea Institute, Harvard. Funding is generously provided by the Academy of Korean Studies, Korea. Special thanks to Susan Laurence, Catherine Glover, the Korea Institute, Harvard; Helen Koh, Sébastien Haizet, the Asia Society; Heejeon Kim, CJ Entertainment; Jenny Han, Cineclick Asia; Tom Vick, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Friday May 2 at 7pm

Secret Sunshine (Milyang)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong, Appearing in Person
With Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho, Jo Yeong-jin
South Korea 2007, 35mm, color, 142 min.
Korean with English subtitles

The sudden death of her husband is only the first misfortune for the
protagonist of Lee’s latest film. With her son in tow, the young widow retreats to her husband’s small town, where her experiences both draw her towards Christianity and cause her to question her faith. As so often in his films, Lee’s richly detailed command of narrative, image and character makes his densely textured filmmaking seem almost novelistic. This remarkable film about faith is unpredictable and completely unsentimental. Jeon Do-yeon has won numerous awards for her performance in the lead, as well as comparisons to Gena Rowlands in this somewhat Cassavetes-esque film.

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Saturday May 3 at 7pm

Peppermint Candy (Bakha satang)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong, Appearing in Person
With Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Kim Yeo-Jin
South Korea 1999, 35mm, color, 131 min.
Korean with English subtitles

Peppermint Candy begins with a suicide and then moves backward in time to reveal the sources of the protagonist’s despair. The story follows one man from youthful idealism to complete disillusion during the 1980s and 1990s in South Korea, as the country lurched from police state to economic giant. Lee vividly fashions a trenchant and profoundly moving portrait of a society seemingly irreparably damaged by war, militarism, torture, civil strife and finally economic prosperity.  The protagonist’s life as first a soldier, then a cop and finally a businessman functions perfectly as an allegory for the state of Korean society during those turbulent decades.

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Sunday May 4 at 3pm

Green Fish (Chorok mulkogi)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong
With Han Suk-kyu, Shim Hye-jin, Moon Sung-keun
South Korea 1997, 35mm, color, 142 min.
Korean with English subtitles

The narrative of Green Fish will be familiar to fans of the gangster and film noir genres: a young man from the streets falls in with local mobsters and makes the mistake of having an affair with the boss’ girlfriend. While Lee relies on some familiar genre ingredients for his plot, he recasts these elements as a stinging rebuke of a society that has replaced community with competition and happiness with greed and ambition. With its beauty and melancholy, Green Fish may be closest in spirit to the work of the filmmaker Lee counts as an early influence: Hou Hsiao-hsien.

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Sunday May 4 at 7pm

Oasis

Directed by Lee Chang-dong
With Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Ahn Nae-sang
South Korea 2002, 35mm, color, 133 min.
Korean with English subtitles

Oasis is a romance between a ne’er-do-well, who is either a
sociopath or slightly mentally disabled, and a woman with severe cerebral palsy. The film walks a precarious tightrope between seeming manipulative towards its characters and its audience on the one hand and mawkishness on the other. It is a credit to Lee’s command of his material that the film is ultimately neither manipulative nor mawkish. What sets the film above mere miserabilism is not so much its touches of magic realism as simply Lee’s distinctive style, which approaches the material with a sober deftness that keeps pity and sentimentality at bay.

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