Lee Chang-dong’s wrenching, tonally nuanced first film, Chorok mulkogi (Green Fish, 1997), packs a quiet wallop. By turns emotionally coercive, visually subtle, and as ruthless as the ritual pummeling its main character endures with a fatalistic surrender, Green Fish careens from breaking point to breaking point, resting only for a moment until the next crisis of sadness. We run a marathon through its portrayal of everyday life in modern South Korea, where gangsters clutch visions of their own blasted sense of importance and simple folk rarely rise above the struggles of getting by. Both are trapped in a world in which stark high-rises stand where acacias once grew.

The film’s physical centre is Makdong (Han Suk-gyu), who has just been discharged from army service. On the train home, he leans precariously from the train only to see a beautiful woman doing the same a few cars ahead. The rushing wind blows her purple scarf away from her into Makdong’s face. As soon as he gathers it to catch another glimpse of the woman (Miae, played with a vicious sensuality by Shim Hye-jin), she has disappeared. She appears again and again, tempting, teasing but never fully satisfying Makdong, who follows her and opportunity into one dark, dangerous corner after another.

Miae, a singer, is the gun moll of petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Seung-keun). Like any gang leader, he runs a “family” of sorts and takes care of them as he uses them to assert his authority over his turf. Makdong leaves his own, simple family behind to look for work and is quickly welcomed into this family of thugs whose leader takes a special liking to Makdong. Almost immediately, Bae tells Makdong he can call him brother.

Lee mixes predictable plot devices of gangster movies with less predictable, even surprising elements of human comedy, and enough melodrama to reach past the critics and festival crowd.  One of Makdong’s brothers, afflicted with cerebral palsy, serves as both a foundation for and a reminder of what the film critic Acquarello describes as the encapsulation of “the ennobling beauty and quiet tragedy of human imperfection” (1). Lee pays homage to this imperfection elsewhere in his work, notably in Oasis (2002) and Shi (Poetry, 2009).

Lee appears to know his American cinema. In a scene that recalls the family picnic in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Makdong briefly returns briefly to his real family, only to watch their reunion disintegrate into chaos after one of his four brothers begins to abuse his wife. Elsewhere, in a scene that owes much to Martin Scorsese, Bae’s hoodlums prepare to bury a man who has disrespected the gang. Against a backdrop of blue mist, he’s forced to dig his own grave, strip and endure sexual torture until he urinates on one of Bae’s gang members. His cohorts laugh a laughter that comes too easily to those whose existence centers on violence and not easily enough to those whose daily struggles go unrewarded. And in a nod to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Lee frequently uses food and meals as a unifying motif. Near the end of the film, a trumpet mournfully follows a rare tender scene with Bae and Makdong, who has become, in effect, a father figure as well as a “brother”.

Lee’s use of doubling links key elements in Green Fish, nowhere more elegantly than in his use of the term “brother”. In his quest for a family outside his own, Makdong confuses the temporary, unsatisfying brotherhood of his gang family for his own deeply layered, complex, difficult family. When he tells Bae about his dreams to run a restaurant with his family, he is sitting in a dilapidated shell of a building Bae himself hopes to turn into a thriving restaurant and club. Neither can escape the mirror he looks into in scene after scene. Death brings them together as well, in ways that I won’t reveal to preserve some of the surprises that occur in the film’s last act.

Poetry, both visual and literary, figures prominently. The family photographs on view in the film’s opening frames, and their deeply held meaning for Makdong, reappear in a cruel way in the film’s last moments. For Miae, one of the photographs solves a mystery as it pushes her off a cliff into revelatory, painful memory. The hard-won connections in Green Fish are rare and explosive, as when Makdong, in an emotional phone call, begs his brother to remember the green fish from their childhood.

Green Fish establishes Lee as a master of human frailty, his characters’ weaknesses evolving into strengths. Makdong arrives home with nothing except his knapsack, which he leaves behind and that enables Maei to find him later. His family, which seems to come unglued in the picnic scene, draws him back after his adventures with the South Korean mobsters. There is only one family. Death, physical deformity, loss, the emotionally bereft – all come to the well in Lee’s devastating, acutely intelligent film. He examines precisely these and other human voids in his characters. We are told that nature abhors a vacuum. In Green Fish, the vacuum is filled by something like fate, to the benefit of characters who might not know it, who live on with the ache created by these elements missing from their lives. Some, like Makdong, never know how close they are to finding salvation. Like the poetic inspiration in Poetry, salvation lurks nearby, as close as the face in the mirror, as immediate as a childhood memory.

Endnotes

  1. Acquerello, “Oasis, 2002”, Strictly Film School 2002: http://www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/lee.html.

Chorok mulkogi/Green Fish (1997 South Korea 111 mins)

Prod Co: East Film Co. Prod: Myeong Gye-nam, Yeo Kyun-dong Dir: Lee Chang-dong Scr: Lee Chang-dong, Oh Seung-wook Phot: You Young-gil Ed: Kim Hyun Prod Des: Joo Byung-do Mus: Lee Dong-jun