Green Fish

Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning has brought this Korean filmmaker widespread acclaim, but check out his debut, Green Fish– a deceptively simple film with layers of meaning woven into a simple story. It begins as a nod to classic Hollywood noir, with a young man on a train returning home from military service. He spies a beautiful woman who is harassed by some thugs, and from that moment on is ensnared into a world that is ultimately his undoing.

But why? Lee Chang-Dong doesn’t focus on the melodramatic plot points, he stays mostly on the human moments, peppered throughout the film. Green Fish moves forward laconically, the method to its madness clear only in retrospect. Our protagonist, Mak-dong, isn’t particularly special, or bright, or even likable. He seems to embody the stereotype of a young Korean male found in many Korean works: kind of a loafer, drinks too much, doesn’t have many prospects in life. Hell, his entire family is the same way- no different than anyone else, just trying to get by without any special skills or qualities that would make them stand out.

By the time you start to get emotionally involved, it’s too late for everyone. Mi-ae, his pseudo-femme fatale, isn’t really bad, but she’s not exactly “good”, either. She’s just pragmatic; there are moments of real tenderness between her and Mak-dong, but in the end, she knows not to bite the hand that feeds her. Even her mob boss boyfriend has his good points, despite being a true thug. In the end, you get the sense that everyone in life is just moving forward without the aid of a moral compass- we just are, things just happen.

But amidst all that emotional blandness, Green Fish is gorgeous in its low-budget filmmaking. Chang-Dong has an innate cinematic eye, and manages to make the story compelling despite its fatalistic and detached viewpoint. One scene towards the end of the film features the family trying to catch a chicken to slaughter for their meal- a metaphor that captures everything this story is about; people manage to share moments of connection, but ultimately, it’s all about survival. Pan up to reveal this little family homestead standing in the shadow of a gigantic, impersonal modern city.

Green Fish is a film that demands a second viewing; it’s all there, but you might miss it the first time around. Once it sinks in, you end up feeling for these people in spite of yourself, not because they are anyone great, but precisely because they’re not.

3 thoughts on “Green Fish

  1. So great to see you keeping up your fantastic project of unearthing hard-to-find films. Here is another humble request from me: “Adventures of Barry McKenzie”, directed by Bruce Beresfold and released in 1972. I keep thinking, if you were able find “The Secret Life of Plants”, you can find anything… Thanks for all you do!


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