Filmmaker Lee Chang-dong looks back on the growth of Korean content

Lee Chang-dong speaks at Jeonju Jungbu Vision Center for his special exhibition "Lee Chang-dong: The Truth of the Invisible" organized by the 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival. [YONHAP]

JEONJU — Filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s latest short film “Heartbeat” and a documentary on Lee titled “Lee Chang-dong: the art of irony” by French filmmaker Alain Mazar had their world premieres at the 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), which runs until May 7.

The premieres are part of JIFF’s special exhibition “Lee Chang-dong: The Truth of the Invisible.” For the exhibition, all of Lee’s films — “Green Fish” (1997), “Peppermint Candy” (1999), “Oasis” (2002), “Secret Sunshine” (2007), “Poetry” (2010) and “Burning” (2018) — have been digitally remastered and are being screened in 4K resolution. Lee is personally attending the screenings and holding follow-up panel discussions with the audience.

“I hope my exhibition can be of some assistance in revitalizing the film festival,” Lee said at a press event last week. “I think I’ve been seeing some good responses from audiences, which is a relief.”

“Heartbeat” is Lee’s first short film and part of a project organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Beijing Contemporary Art Fund which commissioned film auteurs to direct short films on the topic of depression. The film is from the perspective of a young boy whose mother suffers from depression and a father engaging in a one-man protest for being wrongfully dismissed from his workplace.

Lee Chang-dong's short film "Heartbeat" revolves around a young boy's attempts to save his depressed mother. [JIFF]

“I do not create films because I want to convey a definitive, simple message,” Lee said. “I don’t think such films can hold power or influence over an audience. I can understand that such films can offer a certain kind of catharsis when people arrive to a clear conclusion [of the movie’s theme] when the ending credits roll, but I believe that it will dissolve just as quickly when people leave their seats. I want the message to be prolonged longer and for the audience to connect the film with their own lives — for the audience to relate to or expand into a ubiquitous theme or question no matter what kind of social position or environment they find themselves in. In that sense, the narrative of ‘Heartbeat’ is straightforward: It is about the fundamental desire of a young child who wants to save his mother from depression. However, I wanted the audience to understand the depth of the suffering a person with depression goes through, and where it stems from. The desire for life, to save his mother, is portrayed through the boy’s heartbeat, and I wanted the audience to feel that and relate to his emotions.”

"Lee Chang-dong: the art of irony" follows Lee as he visits old sites from his two films "Burning" (2018) and "Green Fish" (1997). [JIFF]

“Lee Chang-dong: the art of irony” follows Lee as he revisits the sites of his latest film “Burning” in Huam-dong, central Seoul and Paju, Gyeonggi, and his debut film “Green Fish” in Ilsan, Gyeonggi.

“I didn’t visit all the sites, just the ones chosen [by Mazar],” Lee said. “I am not particularly camera-friendly, but I could manage conversations in front of a camera [when the interviewer is there], but it was more difficult because we [Mazar and I] had to communicate through Zoom. Of course, we had planned to meet and shoot in person, but due to Covid-19 the situation couldn’t be helped [...] And it is very difficult for a filmmaker to explain his own work [to others], and there really isn’t that much to explain, but I hope that the audience will like it.”

This year marks Lee’s 25th anniversary in filmmaking since his feature debut “Green Fish.” Lee reminisced back on how much the Korean content industry has progressed.

“The first time I was invited to an international film festival was to Vancouver International Film Festival [VIFF] with ‘Green Fish,’” he said. “No one was interested in Korean movies at the time. Before Busan International Film Festival was established, VIFF was the sole gateway for Asian films to be introduced to the West. Everyone was interested in films from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Middle East, but Korean films remained on the outskirts [...] But now, we have accomplished so much to the point that it is now considered that a film festival is incompetent when it cannot organize a special exhibition on Korean content. I feel proud and grateful that I have played my small part to contribute in this vibrant industry.”