Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Young Gangsters in Love: Green Fish

If you’re the crime boss’s driver, never fall in love with his kept woman. It is a fairly obvious rule, but henchmen keep breaking it in film after film. At least Makdong knows he is courting danger in Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish, a festival favorite from 1997 now available in America on DVD.

Makdong has just mustered out of the army with no real skills and even fewer prospects. He does seem to have a talent for taking a beating though, which he demonstrates on the trip home when he tries to come to the rescue of a beautiful woman hassled by punks. Unfortunately, he ends up leaving the train long enough to take a pummeling, while getting separated from the girl and his bag.

Eventually, Makdong reconnects with his femme fatale Miae, who inconveniently turns out to be the property of a rather perverse gangster. Strangely, “Big Brother” takes a shine to Miae’s innocent pal, bringing Makdong into the organization. Of course, part of his duties include chauffeuring Miae home from her disastrous torch singing gigs, setting in motion a dangerous emotional dynamic.

Despite some admittedly lurid aspects, Green is a surprisingly restrained crime melodrama. While You Yong-kil’s stylish cinematography and Lee Dong-jun’s vaguely jazz-influenced score give Green a noirish look and sound, Lee de-emphasizes most of the traditional action-thriller elements. Yes, there are definitely violent sequences, mostly involving Makdong getting the snot kicked out of him, but the film is generally more of a moody slow burn that a blazing shoot’em up.

Indeed, Lee invests the proceedings with a poetic sensibility, slowly unfolding his final tragic conclusion with deliberate patience. As Makdong and Miae, Han Suk-kyu and Shim Hye-jin convincingly flesh out the manifest flaws of their furtive never-quite lovers, maintaining a necessary threshold of viewer emotional investment, while hurtling towards the inevitable.

Lee would attract international attention for his later films, winning the director kudos at the 2003 Venice Film Festival and even briefly serving as South Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism. Though it is a somewhat familiar story, he gives the underworld material a bit of a twist that still seems intriguing. As a result, Green is definitely worth checking out on DVD.