The Book of Fish (자산어보, Lee Joon-ik, 2021)

An “evil learning sinner” and a young man fixated on Neo-Buddhist thought develop an unlikely friendship while compiling an encyclopaedia about sea life in Lee Joon-ik’s contemplative period drama, The Book of Fish (자산어보, Jasaneobo). Like those of Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream, the hero of Lee’s historical tale of competing ideologies dreams of a classless future but is exiled from mainstream society not for his revolutionary rejection of a Confucianist hierarchal society but for his embrace of Western learning and religion. 

Like his two brothers, Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) reluctantly joins the imperial court but later falls foul of intrigue when the progressive king falls only to be replaced by his underage son controlled by the more conservative dowager empress. Having converted to Christianity, Yak-jeon and his brothers are faced with execution but unexpectedly reprieved when the oldest agrees to renounce Catholicism and root out other secret Christians. Yak-jeon is then exiled to a remote island while his better known brother, the poet Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), is sent to the mountains. On his arrival, the local governor introduces Yak-jeon as a “traitor” and instructs the islanders not to be too friendly with him but island people do not have it in them to be unjustly unkind and so Yak-jeon is, if warily, welcomed into their community. “He maybe be a traitor, but he’s still a guest” his new landlady (Lee Jung-eun) explains as she prepares him some of the local seafood. 

Yet Yak-jeon encounters resistance from an unexpected source, intellectual fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han) who goes to great lengths to acquire scholarly books despite his otherwise low level of education. Somewhat patronisingly, Yak-jeong offers to tutor him, but Chang-dae is a rigid thinker who believes the world is going to hell because people have forgotten their Confucian ideals so he’s no desire to be taught by a treacherous “evil learner” or be sucked in to his dangerous Catholicism. Surprisingly, however, for a man who risked death rather than renounce his religion, Yak-jeong is no fanatic and in fact does not appear to practice Christianity at any point while living on the island. What he professes is that Eastern and Western thought need not be enemies but can go hand in hand while a rigid adherence to any particular doctrine is what constitutes danger. 

Chang-dae had insisted that he studied “to become a better human” but he also has a large class chip on his shoulder as the illegitimate son of a nobleman who refuses to acknowledge him, fully aware that as a “lowborn” man he is not allowed to take the civil service exam and in any case would not have the money to buy his way in to the court. Despite later professing egalitarianism, Yak-jeong treats the islanders, and particular Chang-dae, with a degree of superiority extremely irritated by Chang-dae’s refusal to become his pupil in the slight of his elite status often making reference to his “low birth”. Confessing his desire for a classless society with no emperor, however, Yak-jeong encounters unexpected resistance as the young man finds it impossible to envisage a world free of social hierarchy based on rights of birth and swings back towards desiring the approval of his elite father in the determination to climb the ladder rather than pull it down. 

Chang-dae finds himself caught between two fathers who embody two differing ways of being, Yak-jeong advising him to think for himself rather than blindly follow Confucianist thought, while his father encourages him to towards the court and the infinite corruptions of the feudal order. Chang-dae does begin to interrogate some of the more persistently problematic elements of Confucian teaching including its views on women and entrenched social hierarchy but also feels insecure and desperately desires conventional success and entrance into a world he thinks unfairly denied to him. Once there, however, he discovers he cannot submit himself to duplicities of feudalism. The islanders are being taxed to into oblivion, not only is there a random counter-intuitive tax on pine trees but the government is also extracting taxes from the family members of the deceased as well as newborn babies while cutting sand into the rice rations it promises in return. His father and superiors laugh at him for his squeamishness, seeing nothing at all wrong in the right of the elite to exploit the poor. Trying to blow a whistle, Chang-dae is reminded that the courtly system is an extension of the monarchy, and so criticising a lord is the same as criticising the king which is to say an act of treason. 

Having been accused of treason himself, Yak-jeong declines to enact his revolutionary ideas penning only a couple of books during his time in exile in contrast to his brother who published many treatises on effective government. Yak-jeong explains he dare not risk writing his real views which is why he’s immersed himself in the beauty of the natural world, exercising his curiosity writing about fish while making use of Chang-dae’s vast knowledge of the sea. The two men develop a loose paternal bond but are later separated by conflicting desires, Chang-dae eventually choosing conventional success over personal integrity only to regret his decision on being confronted with the duplicities of the feudal order. Shot in a crisp black and white save for two brief flashes of colour and inspired by traditional ink painting, Lee’s contemplative drama finds itself at a fracture point of enlightenment as two men debate the relative limits of knowledge along with the most effective way to resist a cruel and oppressive social order but eventually discover only wilful self exile as Chang-dae learns to re-embrace his roots as an islander along with the openminded simplicity of Yak-jeong’s doctrine of catholicity in learning. 


The Book of Fish screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Jo Sung-hee, 2016)

su0mhpqReview of Jo Sung-hee’s The Phantom Detective (탐정 홍길동: 사라진 마을, Tamjung Honggildong: Sarajin Maeul) first published by UK Anime Network.


Comic books and film noir are, in many ways, a match made in heaven. Tough guys lurking in the shadows, larger than life villains and an ever present sense of the strangeness of criminality, lend themselves particularly well to the extremes of both genres which is why the combination is not exactly an uncommon one. In The Phantom Detective , director Jo Sung-hee adds an extra layer of meta textuality in naming the amnesiac hero Hong Gil-dong which is both the Korean “John Doe” and the name of a legendary Robin Hood figure from the 16th century. Like his namesake, this Hong Gil-dong is a preternaturally gifted detective with a faultless memory and an almost supernatural ability to stay ahead of the game, but he’s also a classic film noir hero with a damaged past and hollow heart…

In an alternate 1980s Korea, Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon) is an ace detective about to break a trafficking ring, which is righteous enough, but he also has another motive – these men may be able to offer him a clue to tracking down a target he’s been chasing for over 20 years. A one eyed man, Kim Byung-duk (Park Geun-hyung), contributed to Gil-dong’s origin story by murdering his mother right in front of him. At least, he thinks so – Gil-dong can’t remember anything about that day save for the visions he sees in his nightmares. In fact, he doesn’t even know his real name or who he really is.

When he finally gets to Byung-duk’s location, Gil-dong discovers he’s already been kidnapped by someone else leaving his two young granddaughters, Dong-yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na), all alone. Taking off with the kids in tow, Gil-dong vows to track down “grandpa” but still has revenge in his heart. As the investigation progresses Gil-dong finds himself getting involved with the strange residents of a tiny town who may be about to fall victim to a dastardly doomsday plan engineered by a shady cult leader…

Ever since his mother’s death, Gil-dong has been unable to sleep thanks to constant nightmares and has lost the capacity for fear and empathy (qualities which serve him well in his line of work). Fiendishly clever, Gil-dong also has a sweet tooth and a sarcastic personality but despite his protestations, usually does the just thing when comes down to a straight choice. Byung-duk’s adorable granddaughters pose something of a problem for him as he begins to warm to their straightforward earnestness, yet his revenge rests in killing their beloved grandfather to avenge his mother’s death. The kids quickly take to Gil-dong, for some reason believing in his essential goodness. Dong-yi follows him around like a deputy detective, meticulously noting everything down in her notebook, whereas Mal-soon has figured out Gil-dong’s talent for deception but hilariously almost blows the gang’s cover on several occasions through her total lack of investigatory acumen.

Through investigating his lead on Byung-duk, Gil-dong hopes to recover his own memories of his early life and the mother he only remembers in his nightmares. The path he finds himself on is a dark one leading straight towards a powerful cult populated by fascism fetish sociopaths. Sure that the “New World is Coming”, the cult have planned a large scale event which threatens the lives of most of the residents of a small, strange town. Now Gil-dong has several reasons to get to the bottom of this long standing mystery ranging from his own desire for answers and revenge to saving the lives of these ordinary people and making sure no one else comes under threat.

Taking inspiration from the comic book world, The Phantom Detective makes use of highly saturated color schemes and deliberately artificial looking backgrounds. Though the approach remains bright and colourful for much of the film which adds to its slightly surreal atmosphere, there’s still ample room for noir with faces cast in shadow, light striking glasses so as to eerily block out the eyes, and Gil-dong’s classic detective outfit and occasional weary voiceover. The pulpy plot doesn’t worry too much about internal consistency, but blusters along well enough on its own even if coasting on Gil-dong’s wisecracking tough guy antics as he unexpectedly bonds with the two plucky little girls temporarily in his care. Cute and funny but also filled with innovative action sequences, The Phantom Detective acts as a worthy secondary origin story for its titular hero whose return will be eagerly awaited!


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)