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Cinema of Trauma: The Films of Lee Chang-dong

February 01, 2019 – February 09, 2019

The Museum of Modern Art

Lee Chang-dong has written and directed a mere six features in over 20 years, but these exquisite films have placed him among the most admired auteurs in cinema. His latest, Burning (2018)—his first film in eight years—is an unsettling, puzzling psycho-thriller that has gained unanimous praise from critics and has topped numerous best-of lists.

A celebrated literary figure in South Korea whose fiction earned him accolades well before his foray into cinema, Lee writes and directs harrowing tales that place his characters in extreme psychological and physical agony to test the limits of the human spirit. An elderly woman at the onset of Alzheimer’s confronts her grandchild’s utter indifference to morality in Poetry (2010); a single mother endures a cascade of tragedies in Secret Sunshine(2007); a man suffers the forces of South Korea’s tumultuous history in Peppermint Candy (1999). His tightly structured plotlines deliver unflinching exposés of pain, trauma, and rage. He appears to follow conventional genre tropes, from melodrama to noir and gangster flicks, only to subvert audience expectations with exceptionally complex stories that leave them to contemplate perplexing existential, spiritual, and moral questions.

Lee was born in Daegu in 1954 to a leftist family. He hoped to become a painter at a young age but made a name for himself in the theater and literary worlds. He was almost 40 when he turned to filmmaking, beginning as a screenwriter and assistant director for Park Kwang-su, a key figure of the Korean New Wave of the late 1980s and 1990s. Between making Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007), from 2003 to 2004, Lee served as South Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism.

This retrospective includes all six films written and directed by Lee.

Organized by La Frances Hui, Associate Curator, Department of Film.

Special thanks to Lee Joon-dong, Now Film, Korean Film Archive, CJ Entertainment, Finecut Co.

Support for the exhibition is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation and Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), Yuval Brisker Charitable Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Karen and Gary Winnick, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.


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Burning. 2018. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy Well Go USA

Green Fish. 1997. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy CJ Entertainment

Oasis. 2002. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy Lifesize Entertainment/Photofest

Peppermint Candy. 2000. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy Finecut/UniKorea/East Film

Poetry. 2010. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy Kino Lorber

Secret Sunshine. 2007. South Korea. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Courtesy Ida/IFC Films