Green Fish Review

Green Fish tells the story of Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu), a young man who has just finished his service in the army, only to return home and find that things aren’t the way he left them. His journey home begins with an incident on a train in which he saves a woman from being beaten by a gang of thugs; in turn they beat him up instead and he is left battered and bruised with only a scarf as a memento from the mystery woman. Upon arriving home he sees that in the space of two years his once fondly loved neighbourhood has turned into a monstrosity of concrete, with rising apartment blocks that overshadow the once beautiful landscape, thanks to an ever rising economy. Mak-dong stays with his mother and brothers, who he dreams of running a small restaurant with, but first he must find himself work, which will be difficult having no real skills to speak of.

Whilst out one night Mak-dong coincidentally bumps into the woman he aided back on the train. Her name is Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin) and she takes an immediate liking to him. However, it turns out that she’s the woman of Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun), a gang boss who runs a successful nightclub in Seoul. Thanks to Mi-ae, Mak-dong is offered a job by Tae-gon. Having fallen for Mi-ae, Mak-dong finds himself torn between loyalties and soon he becomes mixed up in a world that lives by a strict code, one that can easily cost any man his life.

Green fish has more than its share of clichés, and director Lee Chang-dong would no doubt admit to such a thing. The characters of his debut feature and the order of events that play out have but one purpose for the director, and that’s to carry a specific critique on the modernisation of Korea, to which he commendably achieves without pushing our buttons too hard. His debut film is a rather cold and cynical look at the apparent “strengthening” of a nation. Lee Chang-dong has spoken several times in the past about how his films each represent a form of political despair, which envelops the growth of his characters. In Green Fish he examines the imposing state of a new city, Il-san, in what was a radical sweep that took over a far quainter style of living and has now become pretty much a forerunner to modern industrialisation throughout South Korea. Running in tandem with this is a darker underside involving rival gangs trying their utmost to make a living under increasing social pressure. Lee Chang-dong doesn’t paint a happy picture; it’s evident early on that the society he wishes to depict is a hardened and often cruel one, with people from all walks of life trying to earn ends meet, some of whom have little alternative but to lower themselves down the social ladder. And despite there being a large portion focusing on gang life, Lee Chang-dong bleeds it dry of any glory; there simply is none when it concerns such dubious activities. This isn’t a stylised action flick with rousing fight sequences either. It depicts a down and depressing world that gets by on a strict code of honour, showing that no matter how hard you might fight against the odds you’ll always have your back against the wall.

Still, although Lee Chang-dong’s intentions are in the right place, Green Fish nonetheless can be a little too unforgiving. It’s not a melodrama in the strictest sense, in that it doesn’t set out to manipulate its audience with prompt sentimental cues. There’s an overall sense of personal detachment throughout the picture, which results in an almost complete lack of sympathy for any of its characters. Their social standings are made clear, even if their relationships lack the kind of impact that Chang-dong would later masterfully deliver in his third film Oasis. Green Fish shows the auteur embarking on a humble beginning, one that forgoes complete convention, despite having a few familiar plot leanings, but its effect on the individual is of course entirely subjective. The character of Mak-dong (a nickname given to him due to being the youngest in his family) is naïve, showing no understanding of the world he’s gotten mixed up in; the deeper he’s drawn in the more his decisions in life worsen. Violence overcomes rational thinking, until ultimately he seals his own fate. Mak-dong is certainly a frustrating character, perhaps the most difficult to get along with of all of Chang-dong’s creations. He starts off quite likeable, but degenerates into a kind of sad loser as the world is pulled from beneath his feet. His attitude and hastiness, sometimes complete lack of regard and high-end stupidity, makes him a central figure that might not resonate so well with everyone,
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although it’s clear that come the final act he does begin to see the error of his ways, by which point it’s already too late for him.
As for Tae-gon and Mi-ae they’re also representative of people with real problems, suffering entrapment and despair, with few other avenues to take, as are all of the characters in fact. There’s a large emphasis placed on the family unit, which even itself falls victim to a huge communication breakdown. Typical of Lee Chang-dong’s belief though, Green Fish doesn’t present much of a happy ending for all of its participants, which at least shows some defiance in the face of having used a few other well established plot points. But the loss of some characters pave the way for the positive growth of others: a cyclical offering depicting nature at its most natural.

Regardless of any misgivings, the performances truly are terrific across the board. Han Suk-kyu would find himself being catapulted to stardom practically overnight and has since enjoyed a healthy string of features. He’s one of the most likeable actors currently working in South Korea and Green Fish most definitely shows off a great range, with the actor effortlessly juggling his emotions: the famous improvised phone booth scene being a remarkable achievement in his career and remaining one of the few instances in which Mak-dong deservedly earns our pity. Likewise, despite having less to work with, Shim Hye-jin and Moon Sung-keun provide suitably understated performances, while the welcoming presence of Song-Kang-ho - one year prior to his now legendary turn in No.3 - as a petty gangster and Jung Jin-yeong as Mak-dong’s elder brother help to round off a considerably pleasing and diverse cast. Oh and look out for Han Suk-kyu’s real-life brother Han Sun-kyu playing second eldest.



Perhaps Third Window might wish to think about releasing future titles in NTSC, as again we have another nice looking transfer which is otherwise let down by a standards conversion. Green Fish is given 1.85:1 anamorphic treatment and looks about on par with its native Korean DVD release. Saturation can be a tad high, which reflects on skin tones, but it’s certainly a vibrant looking picture. Black levels are a little flat, which isn’t entirely surprising, and likewise contrast is a bit high, but on the whole things shape up well, with a good amount of detail.

According to the end credits Green Fish was filmed with Dolby Stereo projection in mind. Here we have a 2.0 offering, as has been standard of Third Window so far, and it’s a little disappointing. The front channels pick up dialogue well enough, but so too does the rears unfortunately, in addition to replicating the same ambient effects and score placement. Dialogue is slightly more subdued across the rears, but its presence seeks to mar the track, with a tinny reverb. Your best bet, although a bit of a nuisance, is to zero the volume accordingly. A layer change also results in a second drop out where Lee Dong-jun’s pleasant music is concerned, and a couple of crackles also rear their head.

Optional English subtitles are included, and despite again exhibiting a few grammatical errors, they’re well timed and read absolutely fine.


However routine much of Green Fish feels, there’s no denying its power; it helped immeasurably in boosting a new wave of films in a time when South Korean cinema was in a depressed state. Since that time Lee Chang-dong has made just three other features, and yet he’s widely regarded as one of the best directors currently working today, his strength being that he continually improves with each film, adding his own unique take on the things which we all too easily overlook or simply take for granted.

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