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Lee Man-hee was a representative 1960’s Korean film director, along with Shin Sang-ock, Ryu Hyun-mok, and Kim Ki-young. He encompasses the features of these directors, and simultaneously bears no resemblance to their film world. In other words, his films were marked particularly by elements of Shin Sang-ock’s public absorption force, Ryu Hyun-mok’s artistic insight, and Kim Ki-young’s distinctive power, but they remain a force formed by Lee’s singular style. As director Im Kwon-taik mentioned, Lee is a director of extraordinary talent nobody can imitate.

Born in Wangsip-ri, Seoul on October 6, 1931, the youngest son among eight children, Lee entered the world of film in the mid-1950s from theatre, after completing his military service during the Korean War. He was assistant director in films by directors Ahn Jong-hwa and Kim Myung-je, and worked in the revision of A Rickshaw by Im Won-jik. Lee’s directorial debut came with The Guiding Light in 1961, with the help of actor Kim Seung-ho, who had noticed his talent. Although this debut remained out of the spotlight, he was as a young director with a delicate, lively style.

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Lee was eminent as a director of war and thriller movies. Two thirds of the 51 movies he directed after his debut in 1961 to his death in 1975 were war movies, typified by The Marine Who Didn’t Come Home, 1963 while Dial 112, 1962 was the exemplar of his thrillers. Through the 1950s and 60s Lee added masculine and modern genres to a Korean film scene, full with melodrama and historical movies. For Lee, such genre movies were a breakthrough, essential to the development of his cinematic language.

The core of Lee’s filmic language is “exquisiteness”. He exquisitely captured a characters’ psychological state through composition, three-dimensional effect, camera work, and editing. But through all the technique, Lee never forgot human beings, and this is why his thematic consciousness associates closely with relations of humans with society and the environment. He put people in critical situations, like wars and underworlds, to depict how they might survive or resist. But in all his films, all Lee’s characters are fatalists. His moves became tragic in the mid-1960s when socio-political and cinematic environments grew more oppressive. This style peaked in films A Road to Return, 1967, and Holiday, 1968. And while Lee’s thematic consciousness and view of humanity remained constant, the manner his characters interacted with society changed according to the time of each movie, and so his movies won critical recognition from both artistic and historical points of view.

As a director, Lee lived a life full of ups and downs. He was the first director kept in custody on charge of infringing the Non-Communist Act due to The Seven Female POWs. Train Whistle, most experimental film was in the center of arguments for plagiarism while Holiday was banned from screening simply because it was too decadent. His death was as dramatic as his life. He suddenly fell down and died while editing A Road to Sampo in 1975. Lee may become a legendary director due to his sudden death, his passion for movies, and disappearance of Late Autumn, the best film in Korean film history. We have to recall Lee Man-hee for a better understanding of his film world and more affluent study of Korean film history.

written by_Jo Youngjung (Pusan International Film Festival Programmer)

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Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine


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