Friday, January 27, 2012

GREEN FISH: Lee Chang-dong's first great film is worth a rent from Netflix

For those of us who have wondered from where the likes of Poetry, Secret Sunshine and particularly Oasis may have sprung, I advise a look at GREEN FISH (Chorok mulkogi), the first great film to be directed (and the second one to be written) by the successful South Korean novelist Lee Chang-dong. It's all here -- everything we now love about this filmmaker's work -- how he corrals before us a whole society, but one in which there are no villains nor heroes, only men and women composed of varying levels of good and bad, trying to negotiate life in today's South Korea. Which, by the way, Lee (more than any other Korean filmmaker I can name) makes a perfect stand-in for the modern, "civilized" world as we know it, whether east or west.

Mr. Lee, shown at right, has the good novelist's knack for creating rich characters rooted in psychological realism, as well as in their culture, who behave with a simultaneous consistency and surprise that, while it keeps us guessing, never strains credibility. Whatever his people choose to do at a given moment usually works -- and on a number of levels. This is particularly true of the movie's "hero," a young man named Makdong (played beautifully by Han Suk-kyu, below, right) who is just out of the military and on a train speeding toward his family and maybe, if he's lucky, decent employment.

On that train, as Makdong stands leaning into the breezy open doorway at the end of his car, he sees a young woman (played by the lovely Shim Hye-jin, above, left) doing the same thing at the other end of the car. In a sudden, perfectly accomplished moment, her purple scarf blows off of her and down the outside of the speeding train-car into the young man's face, literally covering his entire head. When he pulls off the scarf, she has disappeared inside the train.

The young man goes to look for her, and so begins a series of meetings and partings, feints and parries, connections made and missed that take Makdong into much stranger and dicier territory that includes his own fractured, down-on-its luck family (one of his brothers, like the girl in Oasis, is a cerebral palsy victim); the dream-girl (who turns out to be the girlfriend of a mob boss); that mob; the boss (a smart, sad performance by, I believe, Mun Seong-kun, above, right) a competing gang; the police; and more.

Here is everything from one of the great screen kisses (above) to a funny, family "pee" (below). Through it all, Makdong learns and grows, even as he remains the truest, most reasonable and probably the kindest and most genuinely courageous of all the people on view. (This makes the movie's climax something especially difficult but also salutary.) Yet no one here is a total loser; each is given moments of understanding and intelligence, even if he or she uses these to little avail. And the ending, as in all of Lee's films, is simply amazing -- going past that unusual "climax" into a denouement that allows us to see this sad, beautiful, troubling world more fully than we could have imagined.

This film, like all of Mr. Lee's, is a gift. Accept it, please. (The DVD, by the way is in one of those old-fashioned, full-screen formats, and the quality is not first rate. No matter: Within minutes, you'll be hooked, though the only placed I think the movie is still available for rent is via Netflix. Or you can purchase it on Amazon and Ebay.)

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