Cinema and Media Studies Lee Chang-dong
Marc Raymond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0335


Lee Chang-dong, born in 1954 in Daegu, South Korea, came to the cinema after a career writing fiction, wanting to reach a large audience with his work, and believing this was no longer possible using the written word. He began by working on two scripts for Korean New Wave director Park Kwang-su: Geu seome gago shibda (To the Starry Island) (1993) and Jeon Tae-il (A Single Spark) (1995). Soon, he would go on to make his first film as a writer-director, Chorok Mulgogi (Green Fish) (1997), part of a whole cohort of filmmakers (Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho) who would remake the Korean film industry over the upcoming decades. Lee’s work is both distinctive among his Korean contemporaries, tending more toward realism in style even as he deals with the melodramatic plots required of mainstream cinema, while being more continuous with Western art cinema humanism than cultish genre directors like Park and Bong or more minimalist stylists like Hong. His next film, Bakha Satang (Peppermint Candy) (1999), would establish Lee as an important voice, and although he would work slowly over the next coming decades, each new Lee film would mark an important event both in Korean cinema and, increasingly, in the global market as well. It was also at this time that Western scholarly interest in Korean film begins to widely expand, and Lee’s movies were often an important touchstone for this work. In 2002, he released Oasis (2002), which competed at the Venice Film Festival, and then he made another change in his career direction, becoming the minister of culture and tourism under the left-wing government of Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2004. He returned to filmmaking in 2007 with his first literary adaptation, Milyang (Secret Sunshine), which won a Best Actress award for Jeon Do-yeon at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film, Shi (Poetry), was almost universally acclaimed and won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, but then Lee took another sustained break from directing, although he did help produce some important films, such as July Jang’s Dohee-ya (A Girl at My Door) (2012) and Yoon Ga-eun’s Woori-deul (The World of Us) (2016). In 2018, he returned with his most unusual film to date, Burning, a (relatively) big-budget adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. It won the International Critics Prize at Cannes and reestablished Lee as one of the modern cinema’s master filmmakers. In 2022, his short film Shin-jang-so-ri (Heartbeat) premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival along with a remastered retrospective of his six features and an accompanying collection of essays, published simultaneously in Korean and English translations.

Interviews and Writings

A good place to begin with Lee Chang-dong is to explore his interviews as well as his work as an author. Unfortunately, only three of his short stories have currently been translated, although more are apparently on their way. Lee 2007, Lee 2018, and Lee 2023 are short works that give readers an introduction to his literary style and some of the thematic concerns that would eventually find their way into his cinema. Fenkl 2007 is a valuable companion in understanding the difficulties arising from translating Lee into English as well as establishing a connection with his later films. In terms of interviews, the best place to start is Kim 2007, an extended conversation with Korean critic Kim Young-jin that not only explores each film up to the then recently completed Secret Sunshine in depth, but also provides some revealing comments on his philosophy and approach to art and the reasons why he transitioned from novelist to filmmaker. Bell 2011 gives the director’s thoughts on his newly released Poetry as well as Lee’s musings on film culture more generally. With the critical success of Burning, Lee was featured in many interviews across many popular film magazines and websites. Brzeski 2018 and Chan 2019 are the most detailed and interesting of this group. Kim 2022 is an interview with Lee upon the publication of a collection of essays accompanying a retrospective held by the Jeonju International Film Festival, and Leyshon 2023 discusses with Lee a recently translated short story and the connections between his writing and filmmaking.

  • Bell, Christopher. “Interview: Lee Chang-dong Talks Poetry, How Avatar Affected Him, an Oasis Remake & More.” IndieWire, 8 February 2011.

    This short but wide-ranging discussion offers insights into Lee’s process of making Poetry as well as his broader thoughts on the film culture of the moment.

  • Brzeski, Patrick. “HKIFF Interview: South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong on the Many Mysteries of Burning.” The Hollywood Reporter, 10 December 2018.

    Brzeski probes Lee on the many aspects of Burning, from scripting to casting to his interpretation of the film’s various scenes.

  • Chan, Andrew. “Big Bad World: A Conversation with Lee Chang-dong.” The Criterion Collection, 6 February 2019.

    Chan interviews Lee in New York City during his visit to attend a retrospective of his work being held at the Museum of Modern Art. They discuss not only his films, but also Lee’s childhood relationship to cinema.

  • Fenkl, Heinz Insu. “On the Narratography of Lee Chang-dong: A Long Translator’s Note.” Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 1.1 (2007): 338–356.

    DOI: 10.1353/aza.0.0000

    Fenkl’s essay describes his personal history in translating the story, which dates back to 1984, as well as some of the difficulties in translating Lee’ sexual and coarse imagery into English. He also recalls being inspired to return to translating the text in 2002 after seeing Lee’s film Oasis, and he analyzes what he feels are some affinities between the two works.

  • Kim, Hye-ri. “In Search of Secret Light: An Interview with Director Lee Chang-dong.” In Lee Chang-dong: Films That Never Stop Asking Questions. 208–265. Seoul: Jeonju International Film Festival, 2022.

    Interview discussing Lee’s 2022 retrospective at the Jeonju International Film Festival, including his thoughts on the recent remastering of his work as well as a backward overview of his career beginning with 2018s Burning.

  • Kim, Young-jin. “Interview.” In Korean Film Directors: Lee Chang-dong. By Kim Young-jin, 53–82. Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007.

    A wide-ranging interview and discussion covering Lee’s pre-cinema career as well as his work up to and including Secret Sunshine in 2007.

  • Lee, Chang-dong. “The Dreaming Beast.” Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl. Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 1.1 (2007): 317–337.

    DOI: 10.1353/aza.0.0033

    Originally published in 1981, Lee’s short story is filled with sexual imagery and dream symbolism, as Taegi and Kidong, two working-class men, meet by chance one afternoon, get drunk, and eventually end up having an encounter with local sex workers. It recalls not only the realism of Lee’s early films, such as Green Fish, but also the early films of Hong Sang-soo.

  • Lee, Chang-dong. “On Destiny.” Translated by Kim Soyoung. Asymptote Journal (April 2018).

    This short story, originally published in Korean in 1991, is a first-person narrative by the character Kim Heung-nam, an orphan of the Korean War who grew up in poverty on Korea’s southern coast. Like many examples of Korean film and literature of the time, the story takes on an allegorical quality of a nation divided, with a fantastical angle somewhat unusual within Lee’s oeuvre.

  • Lee, Chang-dong. “Snowy Day.” Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang. The New Yorker, 6 March 2023.

    The most recent Lee short story to be translated, this work was originally published in 1987 and details a young man unhappily doing his military service. Grim and tragically ironic, and a clear commentary on the divided Korea of the time and life under a military dictatorship.

  • Leyshon, Cressida. “Lee Chang-dong on Writing and Filmmaking.” Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl. The New Yorker, 27 February 2023.

    An interview that covers Lee’s translated short story that appeared in a recent issue of the literary magazine, along with a brief discussion of the connections between his writing and film directing.

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