June 8–July 2, 2023
Fearful Symmetry: The Films of Lee Changdong
“The evolution of Lee Changdong has been one of the glories of contemporary movies.”Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Cine-File
In the decade since The Cinematheque’s last major presentation of a Korean auteur’s work, the country’s profile, already hailed as far back as 1996 by Tony Rayns as “the most cinephile country in the world,” has done nothing but rise. Few directors have had a better vantage point to this influx of blockbuster budgets and prestigious awards than ex-novelist and filmmaker Lee Changdong, a transitional figure between two generations of New Korean Cinema filmmakers: the student-activist aligned, government-suppression battling first wave of the late ’80s and ’90s (Park Kwangsu, Jang Sunwoo), and the video educated, globe conquering second wave of the ’00s to the present (Bong Joon Ho, Park Chanwook).
Hard to predict—except that he works at the methodical pace of two films per decade, and never with the same cinematographer twice—Lee is a director of generous yet uncompromising films and a politically and intellectually fearless figure in Korean culture. The Cinematheque is proud to present, along with the Korean Film Festival Canada, a complete retrospective of Lee’s feature films.
Lee’s meticulous, expansive cinema generates tensions: between realism and melodrama, self and other, physical objects and the elusive thoughts they generate. It’s possible, by the end of any of his films, to construct two simultaneous perspectives on the world: the presentable one, and its double, populated by the ghosts of transformative ideas and forking paths. This cinematic sleight-of-hand is possible, in part, because of the way Lee collaborates with actors. Steven Yeun, whose finest work to date remains his role in Lee’s Burning, has spoken of the incredible level of trust conveyed on set. Early in his career, Lee’s tendency to repeat takes until he caught the precise degree of emotion necessary to carry a scene past “the difference between 99% and 100%,” earned him a near-Kubrickian reputation.
This precision also extends to character dynamics, which Lee fusses over in script treatments that resemble novellas. (After the success of Poetry, he and collaborator Oh Jungmi wrote and discarded three of these scripts before arriving at what would become Burning, eight years later.) Despite the often two-hour-plus runtimes of his films, Lee is not interested in sprawling casts of characters or far-flung locales. Everything is compressed; we encounter strong duos, trios, and loners, hardly more. The “conflict” in these films reads more like a fusion: of Makdong and the crime lord he might resemble (Green Fish), of Yongho and his past selves (Peppermint Candy), of the outcasts Jongdu and Gongju (Oasis), of the images in the final moments of Secret Sunshine and Poetry, and so on.
The origin of this narrative approach has long been thought to be locatable in Lee’s pre-cinematic career as a writer of novels and short stories—his works include the prize-winning Spoils of War (1983) and Nokcheon (1992), neither currently available in English translations. But, though he can be grouped in with other second-career directors who left novels behind, like Catherine Breillat and Ousmane Sembène, this is only part of the picture. Lee rejects any semiotic film theories that would have a shot functioning like a sentence (a scene like a paragraph, etc.). When pressed to turn his treatment for Peppermint Candy into a published novel, he pointed out that the entire film hangs together on a transformative principle of time. With each film, Lee says, he needs to return to a similar question—what makes this necessary as a film, rather than something he could publish without the problems of film financing and the strain and labour required by weeks of shooting?
Unlike his New Korean Cinema contemporaries Bong Joon Ho and Park Chanwook, Lee never attended film school. Instead, he learned the practical matters of what directing requires on the set of sculptor turned counter-cinema director Park Kwangsu, who took an interest in Lee’s literary connections and hired him to write scripts for two films (To the Starry Isle and A Single Spark). Rather than his life as a novelist informing his cinematic work, it might be closer to the truth to say that it is Lee’s many lives—as a director and actor in the theatre scene, a world he was introduced to by his older brother from a young age; as a high-school teacher; as the son of leftist parents, but whose hometown was Daegu, a stronghold of right-wing politics—that prepared him to become, at the age of 43, such a clear and confident director of ambitious material.
“Fearful Symmetry” offers up new restorations of Peppermint Candy and Oasis, long out of theatrical circulation, as well as Poetry. They are joined by the hard-to-see Green Fish and major triumphs Secret Sunshine and Burning.
“One of the most important living directors. All of his films are worth checking out.”Sean Baker
“Lee has the great gift of being able to combine a blistering social conscience with a formidable talent for screen storytelling.”Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
“Poetry and cinema may be dying arts, but Lee is on the battlelines to save them.”Tony Rayns
Co-presented with the Korean Film Festival Canada
List of Programmed Films
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The Korean Film Festival Canada (KFFC) is a Montreal-based non-profit arts organization that specializes in thematic festivals presenting films from Korea, Canada, and beyond. This year, the KFFC celebrates its 10th edition and 27 years since the creation of Arts East-West (formerly Ciné-Asie), producer of the festival. Focusing on Asian empowerment and diasporic arts through cinema, new media, and visual arts, the innovative projects of Arts East-West span exhibitions, seminars, workshops, and publications facilitating Asian arts.