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  • On the Narratography of Lee Chang-dong:A Long Translator's Note
  • Heinz Insu Fenkl (bio)

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I first started translating Lee Chang-dong's "The Dreaming Beast" late in the summer of 1984, a few days after I arrived in Seoul to begin my Fulbright Fellowship. I had read it the previous year in a literary journal called Sosŏlmunhak, a publication that came free-of-charge with the Korean women's magazine my mother often bought at the local Korean market in Marina, California. I still have those first several pages of translation notes neatly printed in technical pen, dated September 3rd.

"The Dreaming Beast" was a timely story for me to read in 1984. I had studied psychoanalytic theory as a graduate student, so I was both fascinated and puzzled by Lee's overt depiction of sexuality and use of sexual symbolism. How to convey his simultaneously conventional and unusual use of that imagery in English translation was a problem I could not tackle at that time.

What struck me about the story-and I remember this very clearly-was how its imagery seemed to transcend the words that conveyed it. The language wasn't all that elegant-in fact, it was rather coarse in places and sometimes awkward-and yet there was a visceral quality to the images that outlasted the dispersal of words in memory. I held the images of that story in my head permanently-like the memory of a good film. The only words I recalled from it, for many years, were the characters' names, Taegi and Kidong, and [End Page 339] the odd Slurpy Bar; and I remember that I had initially misread nosae (mule) as noŭl (twilight). The image of Taegi looking out across the twilit sewer at the looming smokestack-that stayed with me as vividly as my own experiences. Perhaps it was because I had grown up outside ASCOM, the American army post near Inchon, which also had an open sewer along one of its boundaries with the local town of Pup'yŏng. You could see smokestacks from outside in the local camptown the GI's called "Sinchon."

When I saw the film Oasis last year, I felt an odd familiarity. It was as if the camera were my own consciousness playing memories back at me. In the opening scenes, when Jong-du, freezing in his Hawaiian shirt, does something as simple as eat the brick of tofu (a traditional ritual after release from prison), I felt tears well up in my eyes. He was just like a cousin of mine. The particulars of the world he lived in-oddly down to specific camera angles-were those I remembered from my own life, and the use of illumination-from the mundane scenes to the fantasy sequences-also felt oddly familiar to me. I did not realize that Lee Chang-dong was the director until I watched the DVD for the second time.

I went back to look for "The Dreaming Beast," digging up my old translation notes and the original text. The magazine itself was badly yellowed, the cheap newsprint having decomposed via its own acid in the intervening years. Something about the shadows of branches projected on the oasis tapestry in the film had also reminded me of "The Dreaming Beast"-its weird title page from back in the days before Photoshop. And there he was, Lee Chang-dong, looking oddly feral in his puffy coat, posed in front of a painting of tigers.

Even while it generated a great deal of controversy, Oasis won numerous international awards. In 2002, Lee won the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival and he won Best Director, the FIPRESCI Award, and the Cinema Verine Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Moon So-ri, who played Kong-ju, won Best Actress in Venice in [End Page 340] 2002 and at the Seattle Film Festival in 2003, where Sol Kyung-goo also won Best Actor for his characterization of Jong-du. Lee had established himself as a significant force in the world of film, a director...