Director LEE Hyeong-Seung’s most noted film, is the 2000 film, Il Mare (시월애), which was Hollywoodised as The Lake House ( Alejandro Agresti: 2006). As part of the month devoted to Director Lee, the Korean Cultural Centre screened 3 other films in addition to Il Mare. His directorial debut, The Blue in You (그대안의 블루, 1992), Sunset into The Neon Lights (네온 속으로 노을지다: 1995) and his latest film, which saw Director Lee return to the director’s chair over 10 years after his debut, Hindsight ( 푸른소금 / 푸른 소금: 2011), which was followed by a Q&A with Director Lee.
Even Hindsight which is Director Lee’s most commercial film to date, demonstrates an art house sensibility which is the defining feature of his work. As such Director Lee has much in common with the best known and noted art house Director in South Korea, Director Hong Sang-soo. The mediation on the intricacies of male/female relationships over the needs of narrative cohesion, the stunning cinematography including the use of colour as character and/or to express character emotion, and the emphasis on social issues creates a line of continuity between The Blue in You and Hindsight.
If I am absolutely honest I am a sucker for big-budget blockbusters and low budget horror, films which rely on quick pacing and editing to build up atmosphere and maintain engagement, Director Lee’s films are the opposite – slow paced, and almost leisurely in terms of plot development, more concerned with aesthetics than with narrative. Having said this, I found Director Lee’s films engaging and interesting especially Sunset Into Neon Lights, which had both visual and meta-textual references to Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
Like Videodrome, Sunset into Neon Lights, is a criticism of post-modern late-capitalism in which the shining surface of objects creates simulated desires for consumer goods. Director Lee’s films are woman-centred, even feminist, in that his main focus is a strong female character who struggles for self-determination in a male world. At the same time, social issues are also imbricated with gender issues – as can seen by the references to Africa in both The Blue in You and Sunset Into Neon Lights. In both, poverty and human suffering provides a counterpoint to the Westernized luxury consumer culture in contemporary Seoul.
In the group interview before the screening, I asked Director Lee about both the use of colour and the references to Africa in his early films. He talked about his study of visual design and how colour was linked to human instincts and the evolutionary process. He also pointed out the symbolism of colour in relation to human sensuality and primal feeling. While his interest in strong female characters and feminism was inaugurated during his University years, his interest in Africa was a product of personal experience having traveled widely and having seen the suffering first hand. A transcription of the group interview is available at the wonderful Hanguel Celluloid site run by Paul Quinn:
Much has been written about Il Mare, which I won’t repeat here, only suffice to say that it was the film that I enjoyed the most. Director Lee’s latest film, Hindsight, is an interesting divergence from his earlier films. Concentrating on the relationship between Jo Se-bin (Shin Se-kyeong), a young woman who is forced into becoming a killer-for-hire when she is unable to pay back a debt to Haeundae moneylenders that has been incurred by her best friend, Lee Eun-jung (Esom), and Yoon Doo-hun, a retired gangster, played by the wonderful Korean actor Song Kang-ho. The film is beautiful shot, as to be expected from Director Lee, and the performances are strong, especially by Song Kang-ho as the retired and reluctant gangster, but the film lacks the requisite action required for the action genre. Unfortunately Hindsight also suffers from comparison to the smash hit, Shiri (쉬리, Kang, Je-Gyual) -also about a female assassin – which was able to make use of a larger budget to finesse action sequences. Having said this, it is an enjoyable enough and certainly a visual treat for the eyes and deserved to do better at the domestic box-office.
Director Lee is an intelligent director, whose knowledge of film gained both as a director and educator, is apparent in his films – from the multiple references to other films within the diegetic world in which his characters inhabit, to the philosophy of colour that determines his cinematic palate and his awareness and engagement with crucial social issues. It is well worth seeing his early films if you can as they have not had the critical attention of his later films. In particular The Blue in You is a masterclass in the use of colour and cinematic form.