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Not So Secret Anymore: Lee Chang Dong's Sunshine

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Lee Chang Dong's films don't have the tango-like cinematic verve of Lee Myung Se, or the madly ingenious visual panache of Park Chan Wook. They're not pretty to look at, you're not likely to laugh with or at them, and even crying is not a guarantee. And yet, with only four directorial works under his belt, Lee Chang Dong has become one of Korea's foremost filmmakers. There's something about his films that feel as if a truck just hit your mind at such a speed you only realize it when the consequences flow down your synapses. From his directorial debut, Green Fish, to his recent Secret Sunshine, every film that Lee has written and/or directed comes with a brutal, emotional honesty that never falls prey to Hollywood's simplistic vacuum of living happily ever after. Because his films deal with reality, his happiness feels worthwhile, like an oasis found in a desert of darkness.

About Destiny

Maybe it was destiny. If it weren't for circumstances he himself couldn't control, Lee Chang Dong might still be preparing for the next novel. If it weren't for all the changes Korea went through, from the rapidly changing political landscape and democratization process to the IMF crisis and sunshine policy, he might still be teaching children literature. Interesting times produce interesting art, and Lee, graduating from Kyungpook National University in 1980 - the same year as the Gwangju Massacre - was surrounded by inspiration and tragedy.

While still a professor, Lee entered an annual writing contest staged by one of the major daily newspapers in the country, the DongA Ilbo. Lee's first novel, JeonRi ("The Profits of War"), was a success, winning the contest and catapulting him into what was an already very active cultural environment. Lee quickly rose to the status of one of the decade's most prominent novelists, writing about themes very close to what would later turn into his films' major subjects - the personal struggles of men vis-a-vis the ever changing social landscape of a country with an uncertain future, the voracious desire and hope to see things change for the better. His most famous novels were About Destiny and particularly There's a Lot of Shit in Nokcheon, which was published in 1992 and won the top prize at the 25th Hanguk Ilbo Literature Awards.

Sparks of Stardom

Again, it might just be chance that brought Lee Chang Dong to Chungmuro. The fact he was a famous novelist whose works oozed realism was a perfect fit for Park Kwang Su. Director Park had made a name for himself in the late 80s with the masterful Chilsoo and Mansoo, the flagbearer of the social realist films which drove arthouse filmmaking in Korea up to the mid-90s. For his fourth film, To The Starry Island (1993), Park recruited Lee, who gave a new spin to the idea of adaptation. Lee took a series of novels by Im Cheol Woo and made a personal patchwork, essentially taking concepts and stories from the works and giving it his own spin. Starring Ahn Sung Ki, Moon Sung Keun, and Shim Hye Jin, the film was one of the finest of the decade, showing the horrors of the war from a personal viewpoint by focusing on a group of villagers on a remote island.

Certainly remarkable, To The Starry Island was just the beginning of a tsunami Lee Chang Dong would unleash onto the Chungmuro landscape, as his second film was even better. Not just better, a full-fledged masterpiece. Teaming up again in 1995, Park Kwang Su and Lee decided to make a film about labor activist Jeon Tae Il, who at the age of 22 set himself on fire to protest the terrible conditions labor workers were facing, ignored and overlooked by the Park Chung Hee regime. A Single Spark, experienced through the eyes of an intellectual involved in the student movement, perfectly represents the mood and crazy contradictions of the mid-70s. Other than Moon Sung Keun's great performance, of particular note is the acting of a young Hong Kyung In, who later had a hard time shedding the image gained from this film. Under the guidance of Hollywood stuntman Grant Page, Hong set himself on fire with only water gel for six times to complete the climax of the film, a first for Korean cinema. The film won at all the major award ceremonies that year, including Best Film at the Blue Dragon Awards.

From the Pen to the Megaphone

Already one of the most important novelists of the 80s and, after just two films, perhaps the most influential screenwriter of the early 90s, Lee could have just continued on the same path, but come 1996 he began an entirely new career. Helped by actors Moon Sung Keun, Myung Kye Nam, and director Yeo Gyun Dong, Lee wrote and directed his first work, Green Fish. In a year which marked an important U-turn for Chungmuro, with the releases of Jang Yoon Hyun's The Contact, blockbuster melodrama The Letter, and cult gangster comedy No. 3, Lee's film particularly stood out for two reasons. First, if The Contact wasn't enough, Green Fish proved how good a dramatic actor Han Suk Kyu was. TV drama fans already knew this all too well, especially those who watched him in the stunning family drama The Moon of Seoul, but when it came to the big screen, all he had to show prior to 1997 was the silly rom-com Dr. Bong.

The second reason was even more important, and would become a major theme of Lee's later films. Green Fish wasn't just a gangster drama, it showed how the rapid urbanization of the country changed the life of those who weren't ready for those monumental changes, essentially mirroring how Korea got out of stillsands. The scene of Han Suk Kyu calling home one last time, often parodied by comedies on the small and big screen, was up to then his finest piece of acting. With a disarmingly simple, but equally powerful finale, Lee showed he wasn't just a great writer, he could turn those words into visual storytelling. Well received at home and even abroad, Green Fish laid the groundwork for what is still considered one of the most symbolic works of Korean cinema's renaissance, Peppermint Candy (2000).

Told in reverse and reflective of how Korea changed from the student movements to the Gwangju Massacre up to the IMF Crisis, Peppermint Candy brought to stage the enormous talent of Sol Kyung Gu, who would quickly become one of the most acclaimed actors in the country. With all that brilliant social commentary, one would expect something basking in bleakness, but there are a couple of flashes of ever so brief happiness in this film that are truly memorable, such as the very end of the film. Which, of course, is just another beginning. Peppermint Candy's other leading actress, back then a nearly unknown young woman who had only starred in a couple of shorts, eventually became the lead of his next, masterful work. She was Moon So Ri, and the film was obviously Oasis (2002). The film tells the love story of a social outcast and a woman afflicted by cerebral palsy, and their own self-made oasis in the midst of a desert society. Oasis won Moon So Ri top honors at the Venice Film Festival, and a special director's award for Lee, who was now a full-fledged big name in the international scene.

From Darkness to Sunshine

At this point, many expected the moon from him. In just three films Lee Chang Dong had rivaled and in many ways even beat the social realist masterpieces of his mentor Park Kwang Su. But Lee once again made a U-turn, and responded affirmatively to president Roh Moo Hyun's call to the Blue House in 2003. Lee Chang Dong became Korea's Minister of Culture, the first film director to do so. What happened during his tenure would make an interesting article itself, but let's just say the atmosphere was a little different compared to the tank-sized power of his films. With pressure pouring in from third parties and politicians, Lee had to watch the government cut by half the screen quota which has existed in some way or form since the 60s.

Many were waiting for his return after Lee completed his tenure in 2004, but he took his time. After writing the screenplay for the animated film Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox, Lee finally returned to directing in 2007. When it was announced who would lead his fourth film, the waiting seemed to have paid off: Song Kang Ho and Jeon Do Yeon. Two of Korea and the world's best actors in the same film directed by one of the country's representative directors. What more could you ask for? Doing better than expected in Korea, the film won Jeon Do Yeon Best Actress accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, proving once again her enormous talent. In some ways Secret Sunshine is like an ode to everything that made Lee's work great in the last few decades.

Mistakenly pinned as a film about religion, Secret Sunshine is no different from the road Lee started walking in the early 80s when he became a writer. It's a film about people finding an answer to suffering through their interactions, and about how reality shapes concepts like society and religion. The film takes its title from Miryang - a quite ordinary, maybe even boring little town whose name means "secret sunshine". Just like Oasis, Secret Sunshine presents two people looking for that rare flower that blooms every so often in life, the prize that only comes after a very intense, painful, strange, crazy search.


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Published September 17, 2007

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