Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 12, 2021 6:31 pm 
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LEE JOON-IK: THE BOOK OF FISH 자산어보 (2021) - 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22)


Meeting of minds and crossing of social boundaries in period Korea

This South Korean black and white historical film set in the early 1800's, which has a clean, handsome look, provides cozy uplift and a a nice break from contemporary urban Asian angst or violent '80's-period yakuza movies. Its picture of the bonding between an upperclass intellectual and an illegitimate island fisherman who wants to master the classics is almost too good to be true, and each beat can be anticipated, but is nonetheless satisfying. It's like a YA novel for adults. It is sometimes marred by ridiculously rude, vernacular, expletive and F-word intense subtitles. Even if some of the dialogue is that slangy and vulgar, which would seem highly inappropriate for a Korean island two centuries ago, it would be even more wrong to render it in valley girl-rapper slang. But the subtitles occasionally also painstakingly transliterate some Korean phrases when poetry is composed.

This is the last century of the 500-year Joseon era, which encouraged the entrenchment of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society. As part of this the king has sequestered three brothers, one, Jung (or Chung) Yak-jeong (Sol Kyung-gu), a Christian convert, he sends to remote Heuksando island as a dangerous influence. Exile is the best place for the lonely intellectual to study and write books. The loneliness is mitigated for Jung by the solid single lady (the excellent Lee Jeong-eun) who takes him in. She finds him handsome; he finds her earthy truth-telling provides its own kind of wisdom not in books.

At first the hunky, slightly scruffy young fisherman, Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), scorns Jung, as the authorities have told the islanders to do. Illegitimate son of a nobleman and a concubine, he is a would-be intellectual himself, thinking that sophisticated learning will convince his father to legitimize him. (It will take a while.) On the island, Chang-dae and Jung are constantly running crossing paths, and they soon learn how much they need each other. The knowledge of Chinese characters that reading Korean required at this time makes being self-taught not really possible, and Jung finds out that the brilliant Chang-dae has a detailed knowledge of sea creatures not found in any book. Jung wants to write a piscine encyclopedia (Jasaneobo; the film title), going out in the boat with Chang-dae and making notes, and in exchange elucidating the classical texts for his pupil.

Material like this can only be brought to life through the clash of personalities, which becomes the real subject - with Jung's hostess mellowing out the macho head-butting. The two men's efforts lead to a local school where Jung designates Chang-dae as the apostle of literacy to the island children. Things end happily, with a hint of sadness: Chang-dae's venture into being an aristocrat ends badly because he is too upright to be a cynical bureaucrat as is expected, and after a long association, he misses his master's final years..

Lee Jook-ik is a director who specializes in history laced with fiction, and while the exiled Christian book author is historical, Chang-dae appears to be an invention. The ideas are real and engaging. It's not every day that intellectual endeavor and book-writing are so successfully brought to life and Lee deserves credit even if the movie, penned by Kim Se-Gyeom, is a bit simplistic and sentimental at times. A local critic commented that the two leads are fine (they are), the black and white makes the images look "like a Joseon Dynasty ink painting," and the Heuksando Island scenery makes the movie a pleasure. Dp Lee Eui-tae creates images that are elegant and soothing, even if the sense of the period is marred by a slight blandness, too many cute kids, and a too-sweet rapport among the sexes.

The Book of the Fish 자산어보, 126 mins., Mar. 31, 2021 in South Korea. The film won the Grand Prize at 57th Baeksang Arts Awards in May 2021.Aug. 21, 2021 it is released as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

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