Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lee Hae-jun: Master of quirk

While Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) may have temporarily captured the notorious short attention spans of English-speaking markets, Lee Hae-jun (이해준) is less of a household name even in film-lover circles. 'Unique' is a word that barely seems adequate to describe Lee Hae-jun. One of South Korea’s emerging filmmakers, writer-director Lee Hey-Jun has already made a name for himself in his early 30s by not really conforming to any particular genre. First gaining major attention with his scripts for Conduct Zero (2002) and Au Revoir, UFO (안녕! 유에프오, 2003), about a town where everyone believes in UFOs, the filmmaker continually challenges outsiders’ traditional ideas of Korean cinema.

His debut feature as a director, 2006’s Like a Virgin (천하장사 마돈나) is a comedy about a transgender teenager who winds up competing in wrestling at a national level to gain the prize money so that he may ultimately become a 'real woman'. Setting the tone for Lee's career to date, Variety's Russell Edwards noted that the film "gives an expansive shove to the rapidly growing permissiveness in a country that was, until very recently, cinematically conservative". Indeed, much of that eroding conservative streak may come from the influence of the West, as Lee seems to be saying with Like a Virgin: as the title would suggest, its lead character finds escapism through Madonna's music, along with applying makeup. Despite the low-budget, and Lee's relative inexperience as a director, the strength in his writing manages to convey the same displacement that almost every teenager around the world coming to terms with their own sexuality would feel.

Although writing on actor-director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Arahan (아라한 - 장풍대작전, 2003) and Lim Pil-seong’s Antarctic Journal (2005) (with Bong Joon-ho) he has more recently continued his work as a director. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Castaway on the Moon (2009) is a similarly quirky take on the ‘rom-com’ genre, featuring a businessman ‘marooned’ on an island in the middle of the Han River and the blog-bound girl that falls in love with him. Castaway on the Moon is the kind of crowd-pleasing joy-fest that should help many overcome any expectations they might have about Korean cinema. It is no wonder that Mean Girls director John Waters is set to remake the film for US audiences in 2013.

Lee Hae-jun at KOFFIA 2010.

Writing for the KOFFIA program last year, we commented that only thing that will really surprise us about Lee Hae-jun is what he does next.As we wait for the next big thing from the director, we can be content in the  knowledge that Hollywood remakes will only serve to highlight his existing body of work to a wider audience, and potentially open up a new market for his films around the world. Whatever his next project may be, we know one thing for sure: it will be interesting.

Richard is a Marketing Assistant for KOFFIA and the KOFFIA Blog Editor. He can be contacted via email on

He is also the Editor-in-chief of DVD Bits and The Reel Bits. He can be found on Twitter @DVDBits and @The_ReelBits. In this guise, you can also reach him at

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I thought I knew a lot about Korean cinema but I've never heard of this guy although I do have Castaway on the Moon and I am very exited to watch it.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to something new!