In the opening moments of Lee Chang-dong’s debut feature, there is very little indication of the many tones and themes it will soon delve into. This moment drops in on protagonist Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), a young man recently out of the army, as he rides aboard a train back to his hometown of Ilsan to rejoin his family. Further down the train from him, he sees a beautiful woman whose pink scarf is blown towards him by the wind. A little later, when he tries to confront a group of punks who harass her, he ends up getting pummeled. He evens the score at their station before returning to his childhood house and greeting his mother and brothers. The scenes introducing the latter seemingly indicate the start of a nostalgia-bathed dramedy, showing Makdong warmly embracing one brother – who is afflicted with cerebral palsy – and riding with another in his egg delivery truck between the new high-rise apartments that have sprouted in his absence before mischievously testing their limits with a pair of policemen. Yet it becomes clear that Lee has different plans for his protagonist when he is reunited with the alluring woman, a troubled singer named Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin), who leads him into a territory of fresh perils.
Mi-ae turns out to be the girlfriend of Bae Tae-gon (Mun Seong-kun), a much-feared crime boss. Following a darkly comical pattern that continues throughout the film, Makdong is beaten up by his cronies (including a young, hot-headed Song Kang-ho), then, afterwards, given a job by him as a parking lot attendant. Before long, Makdong proves his worth to Bae, who is notably called Big Brother by his underlings, in a con that calls for him to break a few of his own fingers. The young man’s descent into the world of warring gangs, sworn loyalty and nasty deeds is certainly more than a little reminiscent of the great crime films of Martin Scorsese. One only needs to witness the first-person tracking shot that portrays Makdong’s entrance in a club to become aware of the physical and metaphorical journey into a seamy new realm that seems directly inspired by films like Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990). Like Scorsese, Lee is not afraid to confront his audience with depictions of brutal violence – nor, for that matter, the childish displays of one-upmanship and bullying that occur amongst the thugs. While taking his share of bloody noses, Makdong steadily learns to adapt to this new way of life in all of its necessary ugliness, along the way growing closer to both Bae and Mi-ae.
While Green Fish devotes much attention to Makdong’s colorful exploits, Lee masterfully adds layers of depth to both him and the supporting characters around him – a skill that may very well stem from the filmmaker’s previous experiences as a novelist. Bae steadily goes from being a distant, intimidating authority figure to a more nuanced character who bears his share of fear and weariness. He dreams of restoring an old restaurant he once stole from as a child, and continually remains aware of the struggle he had to face in order to rise to the position of power he now enjoys. When another boss recently out of jail poses a very real threat to him, it is suddenly revealed just how vulnerable he really is. Additionally, there is his complex relationship with Mi-ae, whose bond with Makdong gradually strengthens throughout the film, particularly in a tender and revealing moment during a nocturnal train journey.
In one of their most affecting scenes together, Makdong confesses to Bae, who at that point truly serves as a big brother figure to the younger man, his own dream goal, which consists of living with his family and running a small restaurant with them. Family is one of the integral themes Lee explores in Green Fish, which he twists around in various ways. The high level of dysfunction that taints Makdong’s biological clan is most clearly represented in a picnic sequence that dissolves into a mess of shouting and fists. But despite their conflict, they all face a common situation: the rapidly spreading wave of modernity and change visually represented by towering apartment buildings and gaudy neon signs. In this new South Korea, people must find ways to adapt and move on from the past. Makdong, whose character is introduced by old childhood photographs shown over the opening titles and who, for a time, finds solace in returning to his old home with its ever-present willow tree, does his best to move forwards and survive on his own by turning to the life of a gangster. That path offers some camaraderie, guidance and the promise of new love, but only fleetingly and at great moral cost. Through Makdong’s flawed yet persevering family members, Lee seems to offer up an alternative route – particularly in the final sequence, in which a small refuge of tradition and community is permitted to bloom within this brave new world. The final overhead shot both marks a fitting departure point for the characters while offering a perfect summative image of the future they, like so many other Koreans, must now face.
Marc Saint-Cyr is an occasional contributor to the VCinema Blog and has most recently appeared on the VCinema Podcast to participate in its three-part series on the New Taiwan Cinema. He is a staff writer for the J-Film Pow-Wow and has contributed to the first and second volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and World Film Locations: Tokyo from Intellect Ltd. as well as such publications as Midnight Eye, Row Three, Senses of Cinema and Toronto Film Scene.