Green Fish

Green Fish


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Lee Chang-dong's most recent film, Secret Sunshine, was more interested in the exploration of love, loss and other emotions than in major narrative twists and, despite his debut Green Fish being more heavily plotted, it is the character's mental manoevrings that concern him the most.

Soldier Makdong (Han Suk-Kyu) is returning home after being in the army. While on the train he is presented with the opportunity to become a knight in shining armour to Miae (Shim Hye-jin), a decision that leaves him beaten up and fleeing thugs without his belongings, with only her scarf for comfort. On returning home to his single-mum’s breadline existence he sees that a brand new town has sprung up in the distance. It is this contrast between the bright lights and cutthroat practices of the city and the scraping by of families left behind, which represents the bedrock of Chang-dong’s film.

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With one brother handicapped, a second a drunk cop and a third a less-than-successful wideboy, not to mention a sister who’s on the game, it isn’t long before he heads to town determined to “earn a load of money”. Luckily, or possibly not so luckily, for him Miae gets in touch courtesy of the contents of the bag he left on the train and he soon finds himself embroiled in trying to ‘save’ her again, as she introduces him to the local gangland Mr Big (Moon Sung-Keun).

Her drinking and confusion leave her vulnerable to Mr B’s advances, which in turn leads Makdong to feel protective towards her despite also managing to ingratiate himself into Mr B’s crew. Weirdly, for someone who has just left the army, Makdong proves to be a largely inept fighter whose strengths seem to lie in his ability to be hit a lot without dying and a handy knack for clocking people around the head with heavy objects. This is, however, just another example of the way in which Chang-dong is less concerned with what his characters are doing than with what motivates them and how they feel about their actions afterwards. So when Mr Bigger enters the picture, you know it is only a matter of time before the emotional maelstrom begins.

Although having noir elements, Green Fish is a slippery critter when it comes to classification. There is gangland violence here, but although some of it looks good, it never really becomes as central to the action as perhaps it should given the subject matter. Shifting from these moments to segments of family drama back at Makdong’s mums only serves to break the narrative, leaving everything feeling more episodic than it should. Chang-dong extracts a sterling performance from Suk-Kyu and finds plenty of depth in the film’s more contemplative moments, but the gangland segments never quite attain the same ring of truth. This is an assured debut, but ultimately the over-complex plot and rambling narrative threaten to sink the film’s more delicate aspects.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2008
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A young man finds himself caught up in a Korean gang.
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Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Han Suk-Kyu, Shim Hye-Jin, Moon Sung-Keun

Year: 1997

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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If you like this, try:

Secret Sunshine