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Master of period films returns with ‘Book of Fish’

From left: Actors Seol Gyeong-gu, Byun Yo-han and director Lee Joon-ik pose for photos during a press event held online Thursday to promote “The Book of Fish.” (Megabox Plus M)
From left: Actors Seol Gyeong-gu, Byun Yo-han and director Lee Joon-ik pose for photos during a press event held online Thursday to promote “The Book of Fish.” (Megabox Plus M)

Director Lee Joon-ik, a master of period films who directed “Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet,” “Anarchist from Colony” and more, is back with his latest work “The Book of Fish.”

The film centers around the real-life character of Jeong Yak-jeon, the brother of scholar Jeong Yak-yong. Both brothers were leading scholars from the Joseon era. While living in exile on the remote southern Heuksan Island in South Jeolla Province, Jeong Yak-jeon meets a young fisherman named Jang Chang-dae.

Jeong and Jang agree to teach each other. Jeong teaches Jang about studying, Jang teaches Jeong about fish and fishing. Based on what Jang taught him, Jeong writes “Jasaneobo,” or “The Book of Fish.”

“Films depicting a certain era usually feature heroes or great figures as lead characters. But I thought by depicting ordinary individuals, we may be able to capture the true features of the times,” Lee said at a press event held online Thursday.

Veteran actor Seol Gyeong-gu plays Jeong Yak-jin, a forward-thinking scholar who wants to learn more about the world beyond books.

“I was overwhelmed with the role of Jeong Yak-jin. I could not even imagine following in his footsteps. Jeong was a person with new thoughts who was unable to live up to his ideals. In exile, however, living on an island with ordinary folks, he finally began to turn his thoughts into action,” said Seol, who is starring in a period piece for the first time in his 27 years as an actor.

According to director Lee, actor Byun Yo-han created the character of Chang-dae with his “animal-like instinct for acting.” Though Jeong is a well-known figure with a deep historical background, not much is known about Chang-dae, whose name is only mentioned a few times in history.

“I first focused on learning the dialect of South Jeolla Province and some fishing skills. But at one point, I realized that these details do not matter. It was about learning the heart and eyes of Chang-dae, how he saw the world,” actor Byun said.

“The Book of Fish” is the second black-and-white film by director Lee, following the 2015 film “Dong-ju.” Director Lee was inspired by the black-and-white western movies he watched in his youth.

For Byun, the black-and-white mise-en-scene was definitely a challenge.

“A black-and-white film can capture even the tiniest flaw in acting as there is no other features to distract the audiences,” Byun said.

Along with Seol and Byun, the film features “Parasite” star Lee Jung-eun, Min Do-hee, Cha Soon-bae and Kang Ki-young. The film hits local cinemas on March 31.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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