Look for the through-line connecting the four feature films of South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-Dong and you will find that they are all stories of the clash between conformity and individualism in a culture that craves the former at the expense of the latter. Lee’s favored figures are misfits and outcasts searching for some sense of belonging — call it family, if you will — from the over-eager apprentice gangster of his bracing 1996 debut feature, Green Fish, to the rudderless widow starting a new life in her late husband’s home town in last year’s Secret Sunshine. More often than not, the emotional register is just this side of hysteria: In Green Fish, the protagonist smashes his own two fingers in a doorjamb as an act of filial devotion. Peppermint Candy (1999) begins with a man hurling himself under an oncoming train before flashing back over 20 years of his life’s disappointments. The remarkable Oasis (2002) tells of the unusual affair between a mentally “slow” petty criminal (brilliantly played by Peppermint Candy’s (Sol Kyung-gu) and a young woman with cerebral palsy (the equally formidable Moon So-ri) — he rapes her, then they fall in love, and by the end seem like the two sanest people in their ostensibly “normal” families.
Regardless of how it may sound, Lee is far from a shock artist or provocateur — he simply has one of the broadest and most encompassing definitions of humanity of any filmmaker working today, and he forces us into uncomfortable intimacies with people and situations to which we might ordinarily turn a blind eye. His films are said to be novelistic, which they are in their richness of detail and elaborate narrative construction, but they are also vividly cinematic (particularly in their frequent long, hand-held tracking shots) and filled with the kind of performances that make actors’ careers. That is especially true of Secret Sunshine and its central tour de force by Jeon Do-yeon, both of which have already been much discussed in these pages. Despite not having a U.S. distributor, the film makes its third local appearance in as many months as part of LACMA’s weekend-long Lee Chang-Dong retrospective, where it will be introduced by Quentin Tarantino and followed by a Q&A with Lee himself. In case you hadn’t noticed, it is also — by a wide margin — the top-ranked undistributed film in this week’s L.A. Weekly/Village Voice film critics poll. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, what on earth are you waiting for? (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; through Sat., Jan. 5. www.lacma.org)