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RATING
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GREEN FISH (1997)

Director:

Lee Chang-dong

Genre:

Drama-Crime

Run time:

1h 50m

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.

Green Fish (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

Green Fish (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

Green Fish (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

Green Fish (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

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