Classics Revisited: Lee Chang-ho Retrospective

By Dr. Mark Morris

News category: Blog

Good Windy Days (1980)

Being a film-maker has never been the easiest of careers in Korea. In the colonial era there was a constant lack of funding, competition from both Hollywood and Japanese studios, and the risk of ruin if the censors came down on your film. Things did not get much better under a series of strong-men Korean soldier-presidents, certainly not for a film-maker with original ideas and a desire to challenge the status quo. The Park Chung-hee regime had, by the late 1960s, set up a system of double censorship: once for the script, then once again for the finished product.

It was under this regime that Lee Chang-ho began an up-and-down career which has continued until the last few years. Lee’s father was one of the censors and had, not surprisingly, connections in the film business. In 1965 he introduced his twenty-year old son to entrepreneur-director Shin Sang-ok. The biggest character in the business gave him a job in Shin Films. Lee worked his way along the assistant-director path for years, gaining some technical knowledge but not much affection for the manner in which Shin’s film factory churned out crowd-pleasing melodramas and historical costume dramas.
And then came another lucky break, one he seized with both hands. One of his high school friends, Choi In-ho, was by way of becoming the hottest fiction writer of the 1970s.
Lee grabbed all the money he could to buy the rights to Choi’s serialized hit Heavenly Homecoming of the Stars and left Shin Films: his debut film broke box office records, selling almost 500,000 tickets over an unprecedented run of 105 days. The film is melodramatic but not like any melodrama made before: it has a jumpy rock soundtrack, a very art-house plot broken up into sudden flashbacks, and a staccato style of editing to match.

Eoh Wu-dong (1985)

Lee followed his Heavenly Homecoming of the Stars up with slightly more conventional melodramatic stories. One, again from a Choi In-ho tale, about two brothers in love with the same woman, another scripted by Choi, set in a poor neighbourhood, about a girl dreaming of success as an actress and a boy training to be a champion boxer. This latter film, Yes, Goodbye for Now (1976), showed Lee’s sympathy for those left behind by Park’s forced modernization. The film’s bleak ending – the boxer goes to gaol, the girl with the dreams turns prostitute before a mysterious disease takes her life – brought Lee his first fight with the censors. They demanded he insert a more ‘positive’ ending. His crew hurriedly patched together a quick photo-montage of ‘positivity’, but the damage was done. Yes, Goodbye for Now struggled to sell 11,000 tickets.

Worse was to come. The Park regime was entering it most oppressive phase with the abrogation of democracy and confirmation of near dictatorial powers during the years Lee had his first success. It destroyed his former mentor, Shin Sang-ok, stripping away his producer’s licence in 1975. When Lee Jang-ho and brother Young-ho – who his director brother was fashioning into a fair film actor – were busted for possession of marijuana in 1976, the forces of righteousness made sure neither worked again that decade.

The Man With Three Coffins (1987)

The 1980s was a decade full of contradictions. Another strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, at- tempted to continue old-style dictatorial control over a society that was growing wealthier and prepared to demand more than just consumer goods. Film gained new freedoms of a sort: the 3S policy of liberalization concerning ‘Sports, Sex, Screen’ meant that sexuality could be more openly depicted, and the producers’ cartel was broken, allowing someone like Lee Chang-ho to set up his own production company Pan Films. But when the government yielded to US pressure and opened the country to direct distribution of Hollywood films, local film-making went into a tail-spin.
Lee Chang-ho bounced back from his professional exclusion to produce his finest films during these years. It is on three of them that we focus this LKFF mini-retrospective.