This year, the Busan International Film Festival dedicates its signature Korean Cinema Retrospective special program to filmmaker Lee Jang-ho. Eight of his films are screening at the festival, including his directorial debut, “Heavenly Homecoming to Stars,” and his latest, “God’s Eye View.”
By the time a 29-year-old Lee made his debut feature, “Heavenly Homecoming” in 1974, less than 15 local films had managed to generate at least 500,000 admissions. Based on Choi In-ho’s novel of the same title, “Heavenly Homecoming” is the story of a woman whose constant betrayal by the men she loves leads her to consider suicide. Selling 460,000 tickets, “Heavenly Homecoming” became a rare homegrown success of that time, as young moviegoers, chafing under the military government’s Revitalizing Reforms system, embraced the film’s pop cultural references, including folk music, acoustic guitar and even the fashion of wearing jeans. The film’s success triggered the production of so-called “hostess melodramas,” films revolving around women in the sex industry. Lee almost immediately became one of the important figures of Korean cinema.
As his career took off, Lee distinguished himself in making realist social dramas: “Good Windy Days” (1980), “Children of Darkness” (1981), “Widow Dance” (1983) and “Declaration of Fools” (1983) all criticized the social issues such as the swiftly expanding economy and political oppression.
Screening at BIFF, the star-studded “Good Windy Days” is set in 1970s Seoul after the development of the Gangnam (the southern part of the Han river) area and follows three young rural men who come to the city with big dreams but face struggles. Another hostess melodrama with strong box office, “Darkness” is based on Lee Cheol-yong’s novel of the same title. Revolving around the life of a prostitute-turned-singer, the film shows an impoverished red light district behind the rapid economic growth and glamour in the city.
“Fools” begins with a scene of Lee throwing himself from top of a building. A boy’s narration explains: “Once upon a time in Korea, people loved sports but were not so interested in films. A filmmaker, therefore, decided to kill himself.” One of the most experimental films that Lee has ever made, “Fools” is full of new techniques in its sound and cinematography, as well as the actors’ performances. Later, Lee recalled that it was the dictatorship under the military regime that inspired him to make such an innovative film that exceeded formal limitations of his previous titles.
Later, Lee tried diverse forms and genres: “Widow Dance” (1983) is an omnibus that borrows the form of a traditional Korean performance called Madanggeuk, while box office hit “Eoh Wu-dong” (1985) was set in the Joseon Dynasty and portrayed the constraints of class on love and sex; “A Man With Three Coffins” was an experimental film about a man that travels with the ashes of his wife, who had died three years earlier. “Declaration of Genius” was released in 1995, and after an 18-year hiatus, he returned to filmmaking with “God’s Eye View” in 2013. the film world premiered at Busan in 2013.
Lee Jang-ho is currently heading the Seoul Film Commission; he previously headed the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and Jeonju International Film Festival.