Korean Movie Review – Green Fish (초록물고기)

After being blown away by “Oasis,” I decided to look into another of Lee Chang-dong’s films and thought it would be a good idea to take a look at his first, the winner of the Dragons and Tigers Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, “Green Fish.”

The film follows Mak-dong, who has just been released from his military service. On the train back to his hometown of Ilsan, he is beaten by three thugs who were harassing a lone woman. 

Upon returning to Ilsan, he finds not just his city, but his home changed and alien to him, with skyscrapers replacing the once-beautiful countryside and his family having drifted apart.

Driven by the dream of one day owning a restaurant with his family, he heads to Seoul to find work and meets Mi-ae, the woman he saved on the train. She is the girlfriend of Tae-gon, a gang boss who she persuades to give Mak-dong a job. From car park attendant to gangster, Mak-dong quickly rises through the ranks of his new family.

When Tae-gon’s former gang boss, Yang-gil, returns from prison and belittles Tae-gon, threatening to take over his empire, Mak-dong takes it upon himself to exact revenge and save face for his beloved leader, which leads to a violent and inevitable conclusion. This sums up Mak-dong’s situation throughout the whole film: He always seems to want do the right thing even though it might not be right for those around him, nor indeed, himself.

Much like Jong-du, the misunderstood main character from “Oasis,” Mak-dong wants to do right by people but never fully understands the politics of the situation he is in. Despite it being a virtue of Lee’s characters, it’s sad to watch these people we come to care about perform with the most honorable of intentions knowing that one day it will be their downfall. And like “Oasis,” “Green Fish” deals with families and the problems that arise within them. Here, however, Mak-dong has two families, his biological family and the family he has sworn his loyalty to, and he can’t seem to deal with either of them particularly well.

“Green Fish” was a good, early example of Lee Chang-dong’s talents — not only in storytelling, but particularly in his knack for directing actors, with Han Suk-kyu giving a huge performance as Mak-dong. And while the story isn’t original, Lee attacks it with a certain grace and a heartfelt style that draws you into the action. You really do care about the characters and the story, even though you might be able to predict the outcome. At times, the film does feel a little dated, but for fans of Lee’s work, “Green Fish” is a must-see.

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