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)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)