Lee Chang-dong has written and directed a mere six features in over 20 years, but these exquisite films have placed him among the most admired auteurs in cinema. His latest, Burning (2018)—his first film in eight years—is an unsettling, puzzling psycho-thriller that has gained unanimous praise from critics and has topped numerous best-of lists.
A celebrated literary figure in South Korea whose fiction earned him accolades well before his foray into cinema, Lee writes and directs harrowing tales that place his characters in extreme psychological and physical agony to test the limits of the human spirit. An elderly woman at the onset of Alzheimer’s confronts her grandchild’s utter indifference to morality in Poetry (2010); a single mother endures a cascade of tragedies in Secret Sunshine (2007); a man suffers the forces of South Korea’s tumultuous history in Peppermint Candy (1999). His tightly structured plotlines deliver unflinching exposés of pain, trauma, and rage. He appears to follow conventional genre tropes, from melodrama to noir and gangster flicks, only to subvert audience expectations with exceptionally complex stories that leave them to contemplate perplexing existential, spiritual, and moral questions.
Lee was born in Daegu in 1954 to a leftist family. He hoped to become a painter at a young age but made a name for himself in the theater and literary worlds. He was almost 40 when he turned to filmmaking, beginning as a screenwriter and assistant director for Park Kwang-su, a key figure of the Korean New Wave of the late 1980s and 1990s. Between making Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007), from 2003 to 2004, Lee served as South Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism.
This retrospective includes all six films written and directed by Lee.
Organized by La Frances Hui, Associate Curator, Department of Film.
Special thanks to Lee Joon-dong, Now Film, Korean Film Archive, CJ Entertainment, Finecut Co.