Korean director Lee Joon-ik has a knack for crowd-pleasing historical dramas. 2005’s The King And The Clown, about King Yeonsangun and the clown Gong-gil, broke local box office records. Seven years later, The Throne, on Crown Prince Sado, swept South Korean award circuits.
The Book of Fish follows this mold, revolving around Joseon-era scholar Jeong Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu of Birthday) and his exile to the island of Heuksando. While most Koreans are familiar with Jeong’s prolific younger brother Jeong Yak-yong (Ryu Seung-ryong), Lee Joon-ik decided to focus on Yak-jeon due to his interest in the natural world. In interviews, director Lee remarked that Yak-jeon’s curiosity about nature “was something that Joseon aristocrats lacked”.
Throughout the film, Lee contrasts the natural splendor of Heuksando to the corrupt world of the mainland court. The Book of Fish was set during the Sinyu Persecution: a contentious time when the child King Sungjo ruled Korea, though his mother Queen Jeongsun pulled the real strings. Jeongsun ordered a vast purge of rival political factions—which affected the Jeong brothers. Though The Book of Fish proves overambitious at juggling multiple themes, Lee Joon-ik has a gift for characterization and dialogue, and brings Heuksando to life.
Confucianism and Western Thought
Heuksando is a backwater, referred to as “the end of the world”. When Yak-jeon reaches the island, the viewer sees a dramatic wide-angle shot of the boat approaching Heuksando, its peaks shrouded in heavy mists. There is an aura of grandeur that is reminiscent of Joseon-era ink wash paintings. The next shot brings the viewer back down to earth. We see fisherman Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han of Mr. Sunshine) hauling his boat to shore while arguing with a local official about taxation rates. The film soon introduces us to the other inhabitants of Heuksando: Chang-dae’s childhood friend Bok-rye (Min Do-hee of Reply 1994), and the local gossip Kago (Lee Jung-eun of Parasite). As Yak-jeon dismounts the boat, the local governor (Jo Woo-jin) declares that he is a traitor intent on bringing Western ideas to Korea. Watching from the sidelines, Chang-dae scoffs, “so he’s one of those.”
Chang-dae is a staunch Confucianist who voraciously consumes books from the mainland, though his grasp of Chinese is imperfect and his low caste precludes him from taking the civil service exam. Byun Yo-han does an excellent job in portraying Chang-dae as an idealistic youth, eager to blame Korea’s ills on the country forgetting its Confucian roots. Though he initially shuns Yak-jeon, the two men connect after Yak-jeon bails Chang-dae out of jail for a minor infraction. Afterward, Chang-dae becomes Yak-jeon’s student. While Chang-dae believes that returning to Confucian tradition and rejecting Western thought would fix Korea’s government, Yak-jeon takes the view that “Confucianism and Western ideas are companions.”
These philosophical discussions are where The Book of Fish falters, as it spreads its focus too wide to be able to focus on all its threads. For example, the film opens with a scene of Catholic persecution reminiscent of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, with executions and exiles. However, The Book of Fish drops this thread after Yak-jeon arrives at Heuksando, with Christianity relegated to pithy quotations such as “turn the other cheek”. In yet another snippet, Chang-dae abruptly arrives at the idea that there is a place for women outside of the kitchen after a single conversation with Kago. However, we never see him follow up on this notion. The Book of Fish has a tendency to introduce themes, but fails to develop them satisfactorily.
The Book of Fish shines in its scenes of village life. With humorous dialogue and a penchant for creating quick sketches of recognizable characters, Lee Joon-ik has a gift for getting the viewer invested in the villagers’ on-screen lives. Memorable scenes of everyday life abound: Chang-dae bantering with his love interest Bok-rye; Yak-jeon eating skate fish while Kago chatters about how it’s best when it’s fresh-caught; an island scholar proudly bragging about Chang-dae’s reading prowess as though he was his own son. The Book of Fish treats each villager with a sense of affection, which allows the viewer to connect to the village as a whole. Even the local corrupt governor has depth, with his self-deprecating jokes and continually thwarted ambitions.
What anchors the village is the relationship between Yak-jeon and Chang-dae. Sol Kyung-ju and Byun Yo-han do an excellent job of portraying the unlikely master and mentee, and the dialogue between the actors sparkles with wit and genuine affection. As Chang-dae grew up without a father, Yak-jeon becomes not only a mentor but also a father figure. It is genuinely heartwarming to see the suspicious Chang-dae slowly opening up to Yak-jeon, and the pacing of their relationship renders it both believable and earned.
Beyond this, The Book of Fish’s energy flags. As if realizing it does not have much time left, the film becomes clumsy as it skims over impactful life events. For example, in one scene we see Yak-jeon embrace a pregnant Kago. Outside of a handful of flirty lines uttered by the characters earlier in the film, this occurs without any buildup. As time becomes slippery, the viewer loses track of how long it takes for events to occur, and how characters change along the way. Though one could argue that the faster pace reflects the sudden passage of time with age, some of the life events depicted are so impactful that it is jarring that how the film glosses over them. For instance, both Yak-jeon and Chang-rae become fathers, but we never see them interact with their families in any significant manner.
The film’s pace slows down once it returns to the mainland and the Joseon court, but the empathetic depth that Lee Joon-ik grants the islanders does not extend to the mainlanders. Lee portrays the Joseon-era court as staffed by power-hungry and corrupt incompetents. Unlike the governor of Heuksando, there is no humanizing of these characters. The dialogue here becomes heavy-handed, with the court officials becoming cartoonishly evil in their cruelty to peasants. Though there is a point to be made about how power corrupts, the way The Book of Fish treats the court officials robs them of life and makes the critique toothless.
The Book of Fish is a greatly entertaining film. Though it fails to develop all of its themes, it excels in its portrayal of everyday life in a small fishing village, as well as its sensitive depiction of the relationship between Chang-dae and Yak-jeon. Lee Joon-ik achieves a remarkable amount of characterization and sense of place in a limited amount of time. While pacing issues and undeveloped themes leave blemishes, the film overall soars on the strength of its humorous dialogue and excellent characterization, brought to life by a solid cast.
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The Book of Fish (Korean: 자산어보)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. First released March 31, 2021. Running time 2hr 6min. Starring Sol Kyung-gu, Byun Yo-han, Lee Jung-eun, Jung Jin-young, Jo Woo-jin, Min Do-hee.
The Book of Fish is screening at the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), which will occur both online and in-person between August 6-22, 2021. Purchase NYAFF tickets here. This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of NYAFF 2021.