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(Movie Review) 'The Book of Fish' tells story of struggle during historic upheaval in black and white

Movies 14:40 March 19, 2021

By Kim Boram

SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) -- "The Book of Fish" is the latest biopic by renowned director Lee Joon-ik, known as a master of period films in South Korea for his previous hits like "King and the Clown" (2005) and "The Throne" (2015).

This time, he sheds light on Jeong Yak-jeon, a brother of Jeong Yak-yong, one of the greatest thinkers in the 1392-1910 Joseon Dynasty.

Jeong Yak-jeon's name has been relatively forgotten among modern Koreans, compared with his younger brother who published piles of books on philosophy, science and theories of government and rulers.

This image provided by Megabox Plus M shows a scene from "The Book of Fish." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

"The Book of Fish" is named after a piscine encyclopedia written by Yak-jeon, an elite bureaucrat and scholar, who might have indulged in metaphysics of filial piety in the Confucianism-centered kingdom of Joseon in the early 19th century.

The film starts with Yak-jeon (Seol Kyung-gu) being sent into exile after the court-led persecution against Catholic believers in 1801. He is held on the southwestern island of Heuksan as a criminal charged with treason.

There, the curious scholar is impressed by a young fisherman named Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), who has a deep knowledge of fish, seashells and seaweeds in the waters around the island.

This image provided by Megabox Plus M shows a scene from "The Book of Fish." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The two men exchange their own knowledge and expertise, which helps them broaden their experiences and perspectives during the critical times of the 19th century, when Joseon is on the verge of historical upheaval stemming from the West.

Based on his observations and research on the island, Yak-jeon starts to write the pragmatic guidebook on fish, listing the names, shapes and edible usage of marine life, for low class people who have to do everything to eke out a living.

His progressive Confucianism-free mind, however, often clashes with that of his young friend Chang-dae, who adheres to the centurieslong Confucianism values and rejects Western thoughts.

At this point, the two characters seem to reflect the two different types of individuals who live in the historic moment when the medieval age is pushed away by modern times.

This image provided by Megabox Plus M shows a scene from "The Book of Fish." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

But the tone of the movie is engaging and not overly serious, with viewers neither bored nor on the edge of their seats.

Humorous spirits of supporting characters and the beautiful scenery of Heuksan Island help people take a breath and accept the ideological clash in a smoother way.

Seol Kyung-gu adds a veteran's touch to the movie with his portrayal of the curious and open-minded scholar, and Byun Yo-han manages well to create the fictional character of Chang-dae, who is young but conservative.

At the same time, the black-and-white cinematography makes the movie feel like a Joseon Dynasty ink painting.

The monochromatic scenes help the film set the focus more on each character and their narratives, while viewers even get the sense that color is not really important in the script-driven and performance-based piece.

"The Book of Fish," director Lee's second black-and-white movie following the 2015 biographical drama "Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet," will hit local screens on March 31.

This image provided by Megabox Plus M shows a poster of "The Book of Fish." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)


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