The Book Of Fish screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2021. Below is a transcript of my on-screen introduction, and of my programme note.
Director Lee Joon-ik’s The Book Of Fish (Jasaneobo) is not only set for the most part in a littoral, liminal space where land meets sea, but it also deftly lets fluid fiction wash up against its solid factual base – so let’s start with a bit of background history, which is presented at the beginning of the film in such a highly allusive and elliptical form that it is worthwhile spelling it out a little further here.
During his reign from 1776 to 1800, Jeongjo of Joseon was a reforming king, establishing a royal library, opening up government posts to those whose social status would previously have excluded them, and surrounding himself with scholars. These so-called Silhak (or ‘practical studies’) scholars were engaged in a social reform movement, shifting the rather abstract, metaphysical teachings of Neo-Confucianism towards something more practical and empirical, which they hoped would serve the greater public good rather than merely the interests of the ruling élite. Some of these scholars, like the brothers Jeong Yak-jong, Jeong Yak-yong and Jeong Yak-jeon, were even importing ideas from the West, and from Catholicism, in an attempt to open up Korean society to new knowledge. They were, in effect, sowing the seeds for modern Korea, and yet their innovations did not make them popular, and few kings besides Jeongjo openly encouraged them. When, at the age of 47, Jeongjo mysteriously died, he was succeeded to the throne by his 11-year-old son Sunjo, whose great step-grandmother, the Queen Dowager Jeongsun, led a conservative crackdown against the reformists. With Catholics now being branded traitors and enemies of the state, Jeong Yak-jong was executed for refusing to renounce his Christianity, while his brothers Yak-yong and Yak-jeon were sent into separate exiles.
Really the most famous of these two surviving brothers was Jeong Yak-yong, also known by his pen name Dasan, who wrote hundreds of books and treatises on philosophy, science and theories of government, both before and during his exile. Yak-yong is certainly a character in The Book of Fish, played by Ryu Seung-ryong as a jovial man who maintains a lively intellectual correspondence with his older brother during their years of exile, and who also continues actively publishing on all manner of subjects. Yet the focus of Lee Joon-ik’s film is Yak-yong’s lesser known older brother Yak-jeon, here played by Sol Kyung-gu (a regular from the films of Lee Chang-dong). Yak-jeon is forced to live on Heuksando, or Black Mountain Island, a remote backwater in the Yellow Sea, and – unlike his brother – writes only three works during his many years of exile, including Jasaneobo, or The Book of Fish, an encyclopaedic text which eschewed politics and religion, instead concentrating tightly on the biology and anatomy of the island’s marine life.
Now writing is, broadly speaking, an uncinematic activity, and films as varied as David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch (1991), the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003) and Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) have all had to get very inventive in the way that they dramatise a writer’s creative process. Taking a trick from these films, The Book of Fish invents a character wholesale, the local fisherman Jang Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), as a conversational foil for Yak-jeon’s book research. Much as Yak-jeon wants to learn about fish, Chang-dae longs to dive into Confucian lore as a step towards personal advancement. So Yak-jeon taps Chang-dae’s knowledge of sea-life in return for lessons in reading Chinese. As these two very different men gradually transcend their class barriers to become friends, and as they engage in a free exchange of ideas, their conversations, conducted over many years, become a wide-ranging dialectic not just on the taxonomy of fish, but on politics, religion, education and life.
While the ichthyological book on which Yak-jeon is constantly working itself reflects both his careful scientific methodology and his boundless curiosity, it is as interesting for what is omitted from its pages, or at least for what is left between its lines. For Yak-jeon harbours radical, revolutionary notions about class equality and republicanism – notions which, if ever published, would get him and his entire family killed. Here fish are not just a multi-faceted topic of study in their own right, but also a distraction from what Yak-jeon knows that he cannot write. As Yak-jeon retreats ever inwards into his exhaustive book, the ambitious Chang-dae ventures outwards, only to find his high political ideals shipwrecked on the shores of reality, in a world far more corrupt and unjust than his Confucian precepts can accommodate. Yet for a brief time, that island setting – intended to be a punishment for Yak-jeon – instead becomes both a social utopia and a microcosm of what, centuries later, Korea would more or less be: a republic of religious pluralism, universal education, sexual equality and social mobility.
Borrowing a technique from the fisherman Chang-dae, this mostly monochrome feature uses small ideas to catch bigger ones and, despite its island-bound setting, ends up telling an epic story – a static anti-Odyssey concerned with history and humanity. Meanwhile, the film’s more rarefied philosophical abstractions are always anchored by the realism of the film’s locations, and by some very earthy, bawdy humour.
The Book Of Fish is a period piece from, and about, a tiny island in Joseon-era Korea – in other words, a film about ancient history and set in a remote location. Yet in its depiction of rampant political venality, of a society divided into the self-serving haves and the marginalised, oppressed have-nots, and of systemic inequality where it is one rule for them and another for us, it is all too easy to discern a reflection of, for example, our own British Isles and the United Kingdom of today. For, in observing something fishy in his own nation’s historical status quo, Yak-jeon’s political critique also sends ripples into our own times. I hope you enjoy the film.
strap: Lee Joon-ik’s mostly monochrome Joseon-era film writes the prologue for the modern Korean republic.
* * *
Programme Note: Exiled to Black Mountain Island for his revolutionary ideas, scholar Chung Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu, a regular from the films of Lee Chang-dong) forms a close, reciprocal bond with local young fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), with whom he collaborates on an encyclopaedic, apparently apolitical book about the island’s marine life. The interactions between these two very different men offer a dialectic about divisions (of class, gender, religion and politics) during the early nineteenth century from which modern Korea would be forged, even as the island, at first an undesirable backwater ‘boondocks’, is soon revealed, under the wise influence of its new resident, to be a social utopia, and a model mini-state.
In this mostly monochrome epic drama, Lee Joon-ik (director of Sunny, 2008; The Throne, 2015; Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, 2016) brings, a beautiful, often bawdy collision of high ideals and harsh realities.
© Anton Bitel