GREEN FISH (1997)
The debut feature from master auteur Lee Chang-dong treads a more formulaic path as a directionless man leaves the army and falls into the criminal underworld
Before he established himself as the creator of emotional dramas revered across the world, Lee Chang-dong opened his directorial account with another addition to Korea’s gangster genre.
As a result, this is Lee’s most systematic outing before he stretched his wings and flew into more original territory. That is not to talk Green Fish down as a film in its own right, it is still a deeply accomplished and engaging debut.
The film’s star, Han Suk-kyu, had fully established himself the year prior by starring in Korea’s first ever blockbuster Shiri, and again finds himself alongside Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Parasite) here.
Han plays Mak-dong who has just been discharged from the military. On the train home he spots a mysterious woman, Mi-ae, in another carriage. Soon after he protects her from a group of leering men, suffering their wrath as a result.
He makes it home to Ilsan, the rural setting of his past which has been overtaken by high-rise buildings, while his mother has since been forced to take on extra work as a maid.
Finding himself lost and meandering, he dreams of his family living together and running a business, but with no transferrable skills the outlook is bleak.
One day Mak-dong sees the girl from the train and follows her to a nightclub where she works as a singer. There he meets gang boss Bae Tae-gon, who finds him work in a parking lot.
His role starts to become more expansive in the gang though, including inciting a fight with a council man who is refusing to provide Bae Tae-gon with a building permit. Willing to crush his own hands in a door to make the fight seem real, he is taken further into the gang’s fold and starts to find himself on the path towards a life of crime.
While Lee’s following films may later come to be more closely associated with his signature style of packing emotional punch after emotional punch, for a crime genre film there is lashing of just that here too. A novelist turned filmmaker, Lee always pays close attention to cramming the emotional package of his characters into every piece of his work.
Green Fish operates as many debut films do – a rough draft of what a filmmaker will eventually achieve. We could say the same about Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite or either of Park Chan-wook’s first two films, The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream and Trio.
We see Lee’s fascination with lost souls acting desperately. How a changing Korea can be bleak and how that has impacted its citizens. But Green Fish can also be funny and irreverent, especially in one scene where Mak-dong and his brother decide to chase the police in an egg truck.
An entertaining starter gun on the career of a modern filmmaking master. Perhaps Lee’s weakness film, but for most directors it would probably be their strongest.