Green Fish (1997)
Lee Chang-Dong recently got a lot of attention when his latest movie Oasis won multiple Korean awards. OASIS is a unique movie that examines the lives and loves of characters who normally do not get much attention from cinema or the public. It's an unusual sort of love story, and was a bad choice to watch with my girlfriend on Valentine's Day. Chang-Dong's directorial debut GREEN FISH is a far less ambitious film, but still shows the work of a talented and mature director.
Makdong (Han Suk-Kyu) is a naive young man who returns home after his spell in the army full of hopes and (small) ambitions. Now that he's a man, he wants to make a lot of money and be able to look after his family. Unfortunately, when he gets home he is treated to a little dose of reality. The area is economically depressed, and his family are not the close loving unit he wishes them to be.
Making lots of money proves to be a lot more difficult than he anticipated, as jobs in the area are pretty scarce. One area that does offer employment is crime, as the area is controlled by the gangs. A chance encounter with a young woman leads him to meet a gang boss who seems to be a little more respectable than most, and when he's told he won't have to break the law he accepts a job.
The boss takes a liking to Makdong's simplicity and straightforward character and looks after him well, to the resentment of other members of the gang. Despite the promise of legitimacy, he learns that gangs cannot really live by the law, and he gets drawn further into the criminal life.
GREEN FISH is a distinctly Korean film, which is not to say that all Korean films are the same (clearly not the case), but there are a few styles of film that do seem especially Korean, and this is one of them. It is a slowly paced and subtle film, allowing the story and characters to reveal themselves indirectly through the strength of the acting. The cast are all strong actors, and this allows the style of film to work. The story of an innocent young man drawn into the gangster world is not really a new one, and GREEN FISH does not try to add much that is new to it. It just focusses on the characters, their hopes and conflicts and their disappointments. The tone is not one of hope or happiness, with economic worries making reality hard. None of the characters in the movie are angels and none are devils - instead they are much more realistic human beings, full of good intentions and weaknesses.
GREEN FISH is perhaps a little too subtle, or perhaps the actors are not quite good enough for the director's ambitions. Either way, the characters remain a little vague to us, and our involvement with their stories is hence slightly diminished. It is still a movie of strong characters, however, and a well told story until the slightly weak ending.
Korea produces some very strong dramas, with a high level of "art" being found in much of the nation's cinematic output. GREEN FISH is an accomplished debut that fits well with recent Korean cinema, though it is a little too conservative to be classed in the higher ranks. Good for a first film though, and Lee Chang-Dong is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.