Master of period films Lee Joon-Ik transports us one more time on an incredible journey with his latest film ‘The Book of Fish.’ Set in the 19th century Joseon Era, it depicts the unlikely friendship that will develop between an exiled scholar and a young fisherman on a remote island.
Released in South Korean theatres in March 2021, the instantly famous film has won numerous awards including the Grand Prize at 57th Baeksang Arts Awards and was featured at several prestigious festivals such as the 20th Busan International Film Festival and more recently at the London Korean Film Festival (4th to 19th November).
Covering the event for Voice of London, I was impatient to discover it on the big screen in the English capital.
Thoughts on an extraordinary piece of art
‘The Book of Fish’ was a revelation to me. It is beautiful, touching, poetic in its cinematography, dramatic and honest in its scriptwriting, deep and meaningful in its characters’ portrayal, and overall exquisitely and efficiently directed.
The film had the power to completely disconnect me from the outside world for the whole 126 minutes duration time. I was no longer a spectator, but a villager on the island of Heuksando in the early 19th century alongside Jeong Yak-Jeon, Chang-Dae and the other characters. I was learning from them, witnessing and understanding their struggles, joys as well as the usage and major events of their society and time.
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I immersed myself in what seemed to be a late Joseon era ink painting. Indeed, the silver-like black and white used in the entire film is a beautiful way to bring the public back in time by staying true to Korean culture and tradition. The only touch of colour is a blue bird flying out of his nest as the waves crash on the rocks. An example of the majesty and poetry of the film.
With a serious historical background, Director Lee Joon-Ik nevertheless manages to bring lightness to the film with humour, embellished by the actors’ talents.
Sol Kyung-Gu (who portrays Jeong Yak-Jeon) is one of the most respected actor of South Korea and his talent is not to be proved anymore. At 54, Sol Kyung-Gu appeared in numerous theatrical productions after moving to feature films.
His prolific cinematography includes the hits ‘Peppermint Candy’ (2000), ‘Public Enemy’ (2002), ‘No mercy’ (2010) and ‘My Dictator’ (2014). In ‘The Book of Fish’, he appears one more time as a strong protagonist due to his natural interpretation of a very wise man, with unexpected fun and touching sides.
Byun Yo-Han portrays the young fisherman Chang-Dae. His honest, realistic and dynamic approach to his character seduced the public who was keen to discover him again on screen after an intended 2 years gap in his acting career. The 35-year-old actor became popular after landing a role in the 2014 series ‘Misaeng: Incomplete Life’ alongside ZE:A’s Im Si-Wan and Lee Sung-Min.
He later appeared in dramas such as ‘Six Flying Dragons’ (2015), ‘Ex-girlfriend Club’ (2015) and the smash hit ‘Mr Sunshine’ (2018).
Byun Yo-Han is very active in films, landing roles in ‘Socialphobia’ (2015), ‘Will you be there?’ (2016) and ‘On the line’ (2021).
Chemistry on set and on screen
The two main leads shared a beautiful and strong connection on set, that is truly felt through the screen and served the purpose of the film well.
“I really got so much inspiration from him. He doesn’t even look at scripts when he’s on set. He has already memorised everything. With that energy, he stays more relaxed and with that relaxed mind takes care of the younger actors. It is impossible to not have chemistry with him,” said Byun Yo-Han about his elder fellow actor during an interview with the Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
About the rest of the cast, (such as Parasite’s Lee Jung-Eun or Reply 1994’s Min Do-Hee) who adds so much colour (not literally of course!) to the film, he added: “Every character was very warmhearted. There were times when things were very confusing but the laughter never stopped. Such mystically complex emotions shared by all the actors and crew really made a mark on my heart.”
The different social classes and ideologies between the two main characters, scholar Jeong Yak-Jeon and fisherman Chang-Dae, comfront them at first with opposite points of view, symbolising the clashes in that society at the time: Chang-Dae is a strong advocate of confucianism while Jeong Yak-Jeon is for accepting Western principles and Catholicism. Indeed, the film is set during the Catholic Persecution of 1801 in King Sunjo’s reign during the Joseon era. But as time passes, and as the two men teach lessons to one another, they eventually build a strong friendship and Chang-Dae’s worldview begins to change.
This connection starts with the two agreeing on a deal: Jeong Yak-Jeon will share his great knowledge with Chang-Dae who is eager to learn, and the young man will in return teach him everything he knows about marine life in order to write a book about it.
History vs fiction
Real historical figure Jeong Yak-Jeon is overshadowed by his famous younger brother Jeong Yak-Yong. Nevertheless, Director Lee decided to focus on the first due to the man’s curiosity about nature, “which was something that Joseon aristocrats lacked,” the latter added. While few characters are real-life figures, some, like Chang-Dae, had to be partly imagined. As it is explained at the start of the film, the whole story is based on the preface of ‘Jasan Eobo” (the literal title of the film) or ‘Korean atlas of fish’ where the scholar briefly mentions a young fishermen named Chang-Dae who helped him write the book. Director Lee stated: “There was not much detail about him, so I had to create a fictional story for the character. With this film, I wanted to focus on the lives of individuals rather than informing the audience about historical context through the story of a battle or hero.”
The interest of the director for historical plots is evident with films such as ‘Once upon a time in the battlefield’ (2003), the 10 million admissions hit ‘The King and the Clown’ (2005), ‘The Throne’ (2012) or the also black-and-white film ‘Dong-Ju: the portrait of a poet’ (2016).
Lee Joon-Ik truly is a master in his craft, offering us films with honest plots, heart-warming stories and outstanding visuals. ‘The Book of Fish’ is another testimony of his talent and I can only thank the director, cast and crew for bringing this magnificent piece of art to us.
What did Londoners feel and say?
Throughout the whole screening, I could hear and feel people reacting to the various scenes with passion. As I asked people about their impressions on the film on their way out of the theatre, I couldn’t help but smile at all those positive reviews they gave me:
“I wouldn’t have gone by myself, my sister brought me to the cinema but I don’t regret it. I really liked the film. The story was deep, I was really immersed. The acting was great too, I recommend.” Loïc, 22.
“I went to see ‘The Book of Fish’ because I really like the director and his previous films, that tend to be historical. It’s really interesting. Very excellent black-and-white cinematography, beautiful scenery; the island, the sea; good actors and philosophical messages.” Max, 29.
“It was beautifully made with a good message.” Vivien, 48.
Don’t wait any longer and watch ‘The Book of Fish’ for a great cinematic experience.
Stay tuned for further updates on the London Korean Film Festival!
Watch the ‘The Book of Fish’ trailer here
Words by Marion Pichardie
Subbing by Ivan Zhelev