[Author’s Note: Special thanks to Daniel Kasman for his help with this article.]
Lee Yoon-ki is a humanist. The refusal by this South Korean director to suggest otherwise can quite understandably be argued as a limitation. Since narrative films often rely on audience identification, a movie that empathizes with a repressed character and stresses a need for self-expression often doesn’t make for very challenging contemporary cinema. The grammar of commercial film (the close-up, the shot/countershot) can so easily be deployed for audience handholding that a small, sincere, affecting drama can seem to be only a modest achievement. Maybe this is why, as Michael Sicinski has noted, after four films in five years, Lee’s sensitive, unassuming work has never gained consistent attention from the U.S. festival circuit (Los Angeles International being the notable exception).
That’s a shame, because Lee’s films deserve closer inspection. The predominantly female protagonists in his movies—office workers, call girls, and massage parlor owners—exist with little protection for their individual rights. Though Lee empathizes with women marginalized by a patriarchal society, he refuses to exploit easy cultural signifiers to arouse audience sympathy. While a melodrama like The Guitar (2008, Amy Redford) might emphasize the soullessness of the workplace to justify its character’s withdrawal from the world, Lee finds value in some of the more superficial social rituals. In his films, boring after-work drinks and radio talk shows provide what little opportunity there is for female bonding and self-expression. The characters also remain rather elusive, in part because Lee’s always-atmospheric images threaten to envelop the actors. Indeed, if his films are refreshingly unsentimental, their imagery is also refreshingly evocative, more romantic than realist. Along with the surprise at seeing his first foray into straight-comedy—My Dear Enemy (2008)—the pleasure in looking at his complete oeuvre comes from recognizing how this modest filmmaker’s visual style continues to evolve and adapt: from the structurally clean compositions of This Charming Girl (2004) to the rich, high-density images of Ad Lib Night (2006); from the spare, awkward scope frames of Love Talk (2005), and, finally, to the sleek, clever widescreen two-shots in Enemy.
The irony of the English title of Lee’s first feature—This Charming Girl—is immediately apparent when we meet the film’s protagonist, the stoic, lonely Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-su), who slowly comes to confront a past trauma. The film keeps one on edge, as Lee offsets the loveliness of the film’s blue summer mornings by creating a permanent aura of menace. The camera hovers around the door hedges of Jeong-hae’s apartment, and temporal mis-directions abound as the film observes her daily routines—what looks to be a POV shot of her new cat turns out to re-establish the character in the same place at a different time. Girl also maintains a sense of perspective that balances Jeong-hae’s insularity. She might be more disturbed, but her female co-workers are just as repressed. When Jeong-hae insists that she leave an after-work get-together with her co-workers to take care of her cat, a hurt friend asks her to stay, pleading that she’s chosen to spend time with her co-workers over her husband. The friend sounds desperate, knowing that these boring happy hours provide some sense of relief. Girl is emblematic of Lee’s rational compassion as a filmmaker.
In Ad Lib Night, a girl (Han Hyo-ju) is asked by the family of a dying man to impersonate his long-lost daughter, but the film is unburdened by its high-concept. The girl’s task, simply to whisper “I’m sorry” to the man, is accomplished fairly on, providing room for more slice-of-life sequences that are perceptive of both place and class. The family’s house in a rural town outside of Seoul is large, bare, and looks completely out of place. In so many industrialized countries, suburban developments pop-up out of nowhere only to never be finished, leaving rural landscapes littered with sentinel McMansions.
The girl is just as marginalized a figure as Jeong-hae. Referred to by the name of the woman she impersonates, we only learn her own name towards the end of the film. That it’s also revealed that she’s a call girl only reinforces the idea that a young woman’s place within a family is a narrow, subservient role. After her job is done, she’s literally kicked to the side of the room by the anxious family. She is alone, and all but dissolves under Night’s lush DV cinematography. Framing her against blue twilight skies and behind reflective car windows, the images are rich to the point of near opacity.
Three of Lee’s films are adaptations of other material (Ad Lib Night and My Dear Enemy both originate from novels by Japanese author Azuko Taira). His only original screenplay, Love Talk, presents a twist to the history of transmigratory cinema in the U.S.: a South Korean film crew makes a fictional romantic-drama about Korean-Americans in Los Angeles. It’s an intriguing, awkward film that works in fits and starts. Lee’s direction, usually so good (especially with blocking), seems uncertain. The Terry McMillan-esque plot—about a hard-edged massage parlor owner and a Korean-American talk show host—suggests that he works best when other writers provide the coordinates for melodrama. But the movie is also affecting in its clumsiness, particularly in how it constructs an emotional space out of its Los Angeles locations. Shooting for the first time in widescreen, and opening with a long tracking shot that is distinct from the more fragmentary editing of his two earlier films, Lee, who received his MA from USC, creates an eerily empty city. There are never enough extras to populate a Korean town club or massage parlor. In a new country, the Korean ex-pat characters are able to insulate themselves, and the flat delivery by the American actors is both risibly bad and strangely poignant. Their stiffness makes them seem like intruders into the protagonists’ tight-knit community. Love Talk might essentially be a VCD “video movie” for expats that has infiltrated the film festival circuit.
It’s a surprise then, to find that the light My Dear Enemy, departs from Lee’s earlier female-centered narratives. The film essentially agrees with its male lead, Byeong-woon (The Chaser’s Ha Jung-woo), that his former lover Hee-su (2007 Cannes Best Actress winner Jeon Do-yeon) should get over the loan she has asked him to repay. Hee-su is continually humiliated while the debt is collected piecemeal from donations by other female fans of Byeong-woon. Her goal is made to seem more and more petty as the women donating to her become more generous.
But My Dear Enemy, the film that, among Lee’s work, is least concerned with female melodrama, is the one that finally allows an actor to give a standout performance. While the solitary women in Girl and Ad Lib were required to be melancholy, Jeon reveals herself to be a fierce comic actress. Soaked in severe black eyeliner, she ’s the straight woman to Ha, staring down her ex every time he delivers some charming bullshit. But her expressive eyes and dry line readings show an amusement with the situation that becomes all the more palpable through her blocking within the film’s frame. In one sequence, the camera looks from over Hee-su’s shoulder onto a rooftop party crowd of drunk Seoul bohos. The scene’s too much fun for either Hee-su or the film to believe her when she says, “I hate this world.”
My Dear Enemy ends with the “main protagonist slowly gives a grin of profound revelation as she drives alone” bit, the kind of cheaply middlebrow uplift that one worries might find its way into Lee’s films. It makes the argument for the director as a uniquely unsentimental humanist more difficult, and the elements of his earlier work that seemed a bit shaky—like the possibility in This Charming Girl of a romance with an awkward writer—become all the more questionable. But whatever their slips, his films are never uninteresting. Lee has always been a filmmaker greatly sensitive to place, tone, and character. With My Dear Enemy, he finally extends that generosity to his actors. Korean film websites have reported that his next film, And Us, will be another romantic-dramedy. It could be just as commercial as Enemy (which still flopped at the Korean box-office). But these films could prove to be his niche after all, and for a type of movie that is often too static visually and too sticky-sweet emotionally, the rom-dram could use Lee.
Jason Klorfein recently programmed a retrospective on filmmaker Anna Biller for Block Cinema in Evanston, IL. Clips of his video work, programming notes, and other first world fun can be had at jasonklorfein.com.