Lights! Camera! Wild imaginationLee Chang-dong had a strange dream several months ago. He saw a baby elephant that materialized out of nowhere and was in a delightful mood. The elephant made itself comfortable in Lee's room, roaming about here and there, dancing on the carpet, opening the refrigerator and turning on the television. Then it suddenly evaporated into the television -- and Lee suddenly woke up. Though it was still the middle of the night, Lee could not get back to sleep. As if possessed, he went over to his desk, turned on the computer and started to write a movie script. This is how "Oasis," opening Thursday, was born.
Lee, a leading arthouse director in the Korean movie scene, says he dreams lucidly before he shoots his films, and he uses the images to help structure the films. So how did the elephant factor into "Oasis"? Lee sat recently with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition to talk about the magic spell the pachyderm cast on him.
Lee shows up in timeworn blue jeans with an old-fashioned brown belt and a black T-shirt with white stripes. The casual clothes suit this pensive and modest man; indeed, he seldom dresses up. Soon, however, he will have to put on black-tie formal wear, though he detests the idea. But you cannot wear jeans and a T-shirt on the red carpet in Venice, Italy. "Oasis" has been invited to the Venice International Film Festival, which raises its curtain Aug. 29. The audacious love story of two disabled people, one mentally and one physically, is the only Korean feature film in competition at Venice.
Lee, grand in stature with a sturdy physique, looks at first glance like a difficult person. He tilts his head and knits his brow, as if chronically dissatisfied. His jeans aren't hip; just an old-fashioned type. He seems as if he just left the 1970s, when his generation endured the political strife amid the military dictatorship.
Born in 1954 in Daegu, South Gyeongsang province, Lee has an attentive and sensitive character. After graduating from an education college, he started teaching Korean language and literature at high schools. "I once taught at a small school on a remote mountainside, which was the happiest time of my life," he says. "There was nothing to worry about, disconnected from the busy outer world."
But his artistic instincts railed against such tranquility. While teaching, Lee also kept himself busy with writing. In 1983, he won a prestigious writing contest with his novel "Jeolli" (Gains of War). "I think I'm born to be an author," he says, but then hints that it's more a curse than a blessing. "But I started worrying myself to death when I realized my books wouldn't change the world."
He says that once his novel hit bookstores, he couldn't even pass by one because he felt so uncomfortable. Lee went on to author two more novels and a collection of short stories; his works focus on the years of political turmoil, and are liked by both critics and readers.
The end of the 1980s was when Lee, then in his late 30s, felt the need for a major change. "I was told that we would have a whole new world of true democracy in the 1990s," he says. But he became disillusioned. "As I see it, nothing changed, and the '90s were worse in a way; at least we shared a profound cause in the '70s and the '80s."
He lights a cigarette. "I came to realize that I'd lost some of my purity, and I felt so languid," he says. "I thought I should punish myself with something new and demanding."
The feeling of loss drove the artist to the edge. "I asked myself why I should go on in this society," he says. "I don't know why, but I used to say that I wanted to run away to Paris. When asked why, I just gave indirect answers, saying I was thinking about studying movie directing." He smiles. That joke came true, partly, after a close friend of Lee's, the movie director Park Gwang-su, asked Lee in 1992 to forget about Paris and write a script. Lee took the job, and went on to be Park's assistant director. "I enjoyed the hectic life on the film set, and naturally started my own film career," he says. And the job was hard, just as he wanted. "If I was determined to be a director from the start, I guess I would not have made it."
Lee made his debut as a director in 1997, with "Chorok Mulguogi" (Green Fish), in which he sought to portray the identity of Korean society. Telling about the rise and fall of a young man whose hometown grows swiftly into a big city, "Green Fish" is both provocative and popular. Lee won fame with his philosophical but honest and interesting way of storytelling. His next work, 1999's "Bakha Satang" (Peppermint Candy), was a portrait of a man losing innocence as time passes by, painted in a series of retrospectives. Lee divides the film into seven episodes, bridging each with a scene of train going backward. The main character is a former riot police officer who seems possessed by evil spirits. But gradually you see that he was once a pure spirit before life gnawed out his innocence.
Compared with the first two films -- gloomy portrayals of modern society -- "Oasis" is different. "It's a story of love," Lee says. "I believe that every love story has a happy ending as long as the characters are free to make their own choices." One word that stalked the director through the filmmaking process was "fantasy." Lee says that a movie ticket gives you 7,000 won ($6) worth of fantasy, but that he wants to make sure that his movies deliver elements of truth and meaning as well. But "Oasis" is not about fantastic images -- it is a wretched tale of love between a tortured, maladjusted man and a bedridden, mute woman. The baby elephant? It shows up unexpectedly, like in Lee's dream, and blesses the couple.
In dealing with this seemingly incompatible pair, Lee applies frank realism. He says he wanted to break free from any formulas for romances. The first step was to shoot with a handheld camera. At the same time, he did not want it to be a Lars von Trie. At a glance, you cannot tell that a handheld camera was used. "A film is all about frames, and if frames are shaky, it's means an escape from conventional ways of filming, and that's it," Lee explains. The film is filled with raw, if shabby images. The quality of the film is accentuated by the acting of Seol Gyeong-gu and Moon So-ri. Moon is especially effective in a convincing portrayal of a handicapped woman.
Lee said he wanted to remain as realistic as possible:
"I don't care whether viewers take to the characters or not, but I hope they can communicate with my film and with me."
Whether the jury members in Venice will be able to communicate with Lee remains a question. Yet Lee's perfectionist style clearly deserves notice. He always gets himself ready in advance with sketches and detailed explanations of characters, direction of the camera and so on. He has a reputation for never giving up. Once, the actress Moon almost fainted from a marathon bout of filming, only to hear Lee telling her to get a dextrose shot and keep working. "Getting the right feeling is really important," Lee says. "Susceptibilities lead us to feel something beautiful and that's what really counts."
Though busy with his films, Lee is carefree about his future; "There are few arthouse directors like John Cassavetes who thrive for more than a decade. Who knows, will I get exhausted and quit?" He then hinted he may go back to writing novels some day.
But for now the baby elephant's spell is still strong, and there's not telling when he'll wake up.
When the outline of "Oasis" became known, movie industry people said Lee Chang-dong had changed. He seemed the last person who would make a love story with a happy ending. But after seeing Lee's latest film, they all ate their words. The film tells the story of Jong-du (Seol Gyeong-gu) an ex-con just out of jail, and Gong-ju (Moon So-ri), a woman with a crippling disease. On the surface, Jong-du is a grown-up baby and Gong-ju is a nuisance. But to each other, Jong-du is a dignified young man and Gong-ju is a beautiful young woman. The more in love they grow, the crueler reality gets, and the world scowls at their true love.
"By telling a love story that the general public cannot easily accept, I wanted to talk about the value system of Korean society," Lee explains. The director deserves praise for this audacious and honest film, but the actress Moon, with the courage and talent to portray a disabled woman, is even more deserving.
"Peppermint Candy" is the most challenging of Lee's three films, with its retrospective storytelling style. The film opens with a group of middle-aged people having a picnic and drinking, singing and dancing to a karaoke machine. Young-ho (Seol) shows up. He climbs up a railway bridge when a train is coming and cries out, "I want to go back!" The camera takes the viewer back, dividing his past into seven episodes. You meet the ugly Young-ho -- as a wealthy businessman having an affair with his secretary, as a detective specializing in torturing activists and as a soldier who happens to shoot a college student. But as the film progresses, you also meet the good Young-ho, when he was a naive young man, and his first love Sun-im (Moon). This journey back to innocence cemented the director Lee's career. "I wanted to talk to young people about our society and its changing times," Lee says. "Peppermint Candy" is available in DVD format with English and Japanese subtitles.
"Green Fish" opens with black and white photos of a little boy living in a rural village. Though his clothes are ragged, Mak-dong looks happy enough, and is surrounded by a large family. Times have passed, and the camera shows a grown-up Mak-dong (Han Seok-gyu) coming back after his military service to find his hometown a huge city packed with apartment complexes. His family is scattered. Mak-dong has to make money, now the top priority of life. He has a little dream to bring the family back and start a restaurant, but knows it's doubtful. He meets Mi-ae (Sim Hye-jin), a mistress of a gangster boss. She introduces Mak-dong to the boss, who takes him in. The story is told in a simple but intense way. Mak-dong, who does not know who he is, symbolizes Korean society, lost in a world with new values. "I wanted to deal with the identity of Korean society, which seems lost," the director Lee says. Available in DVD format with English, Chinese and Japanese subtitles.
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