Lee Chang-dong, and the Art of the Long Take
by Christian Glosner
When South Korean cinema exploded onto the international stage in the late 90s and early 2000s after decades of being restrained by government censorship and film quotas, it quickly came to be defined for its overall extremity and bombast, at least in international eyes. Films like 2003’s Oldboy and 2006’s The Host were notable hits both domestically and internationally, and their directors – Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, respectively – rose to prominence on a global stage. Korean genre fare, often marked by its extreme brutality, became the popular face of Korean cinema at large. However, while his contemporaries were distinguishing themselves on the international stage for producing films with, to put it mildly, a certain amount of excess, in addition to marking out their own bold and distinctive directorial styles, director Lee Chang-dong took the opposite approach. A former novelist (and one-time South Korean Minister of Culture and Tourism), Lee’s greatest strength as a filmmaker became his almost aggressively naturalistic aesthetic. Nowhere is this quality better emphasized than in his tendency towards using long takes.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a ‘long take’ generally denotes a type of shot where the camera holds without cutting for a longer length of time than is considered usual for the pace of a given film. There isn’t an exact, technical definition regarding how long these shots should be before being considered a ‘long take,’ being determined instead by the context of the average shot length of rest of the film, but in Lee’s case, they tend to be upwards of about a minute apiece. Lee is far from the only South Korean director to use long takes (famously, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy contains a grueling hallway fight scene conveyed in an unbroken two-and-a-half minute long shot), but while other directors tend towards flashier uses for their long takes, Lee’s oners are purposefully more stripped-down. Their goal, generally speaking, is to remain invisible, with Lee primarily using them to create a space for his actors to flesh out their characters and allow the audience to witness moments of introspection and other pieces of emotional detail that might otherwise be lost between edits. This tendency towards giving his actors the time to stretch out, so to speak, reflects some of Lee’s larger aims as a filmmaker, namely that his work trends towards the more unhurried and observational rather than the frenetic and propulsive. Lee’s films take the form of intimate character dramas and, generally speaking, center themselves around disaffected or otherwise disabled members of Korean society, often of middle-to-low income. They strive to be as genuine and unsentimental as possible – though it should be noted that Lee’s films are often deeply empathetic, a trait which his nuance-oriented long takes help to enable. His ability to continually leverage his contemplativatively-styled filmmaking techniques to produce emotionally rewarding, deeply textured works distinguishes himself from many modern filmmakers, and is why I feel he’s easily one of the best working today, and why I remain thrilled to see whatever he produces next.