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The House that Stories (and Movies) Built

Sep 16, 2020

Even for those who are not movie buffs, his name instantly rings a bell. He is known for providing bite-sized critiques for almost every movie released in the nation in clear, concise and objective language, maneuvering through books, articles, blogs, radio, and even public television to share his insights. Of course, we’re talking about film critic Lee Dong-jin. His original goal was to pursue religious studies, but life, as it often does, didn’t go as planned, and he has now been a film critic for 20 years. “Living each day to the fullest and letting life just flow,” Lee Dong-jin has developed a sound and healthy attitude toward life, thanks in large part to an avid reading habit. Who better to talk to about the qualities that make up an intellectual?

Film Critic Lee Dong-jin (Alumnus, Department of religious studies)
Film Critic Lee Dong-jin (Alumnus, Department of religious studies)

Q. You have recently published your book Every Movie Starts Twice, a collection of your writings from 1999 to 2019, totaling 208 movie reviews. How did you feel while organizing this vast array of history?

A. I wanted to organize the last 20 years of my career as a film critic. During this period, my reviews got published on various platforms, depending on my situation at the time. In the beginning, my reviews were published in newspapers, and therefore relatively short; around 7-8 pages of a 200-character template at most. Then when I quit my job as a reporter and set up a one-man media enterprise, LeeDongJin.com, I could publish longer reviews – around 20-30 pages of the 200-character template - on platforms such as Naver and Daum. The recent reviews that I wrote for my new book are longer, about 60-80 pages. It’s my personal belief that one should write according to the nature of the media and its readers, so it is somewhat natural that Every Movie Starts Twice reflects the changing time and stages of my career, and reaffirms the notion that the form of the writing determines its character. For example, for more ‘active’ readers who are not put off by the length of the piece, the writing becomes much more analytical, dry, and detailed. On the other hand, when you write for a wider audience, you must keep it short, yet more colorful and emotional. So, as with all forms of art, the content and form of a piece of writing cannot be distinguished from one another.

Q. Some say that the era of people reading long texts has already passed, yet there still seems to be a demand for well-organized and detailed knowledge. What do you think about the public reception of your book?

A. I am just thankful for receiving so much love – it was much more than what I had anticipated. Being a collection of my writings from the past 20 years, there are a lot of discrepancies in style across the individual pieces. For example, some pieces were included as a break, some light satire that readers can skim while working their way through this 1000-page book. Since I have published a very heterogeneous book with Every Movie Starts Twice, my next book, The World of Bong Joon-ho, Explained by Lee Dong-jin, which came out this spring, was conceived as a series of tonally unified interviews and essays. These two books that I have published this past year illustrate my present state as a critic.

Q. You have been writing about film and cinema for over 20 years now. How did you first become a movie critic?

A. When I first started my Naver blog 13 years ago, I posted “Live each day to the fullest and let life just flow” on its header. Until my college days, I tried to achieve my major life’s goals by carefully planning out each day and pushing myself to the limit. But after a while of doing this I came to realize that while specific plans pertain to particular periods and are applicable in limited contexts, one can maintain a certain general attitude in life. I began to think perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to just go with the flow of life and see where it leads. Even though I have been doing it for some 30 years, taking my college days into account, I have never gotten bored of writing about movies, so it seems pretty clear that a film critic may be my natural vocation. Still, it’s hard to say how I became a film critic in the first place. Though I am not all that talented or farsighted, I just paddle desperately through the flood of various works and projects, trying not to drown. I have been paddling along like this for quite some time now, who I am now is a result of that. I am not sure whether it’s a stroke of luck or a grave misfortune!

Q. Under the overarching theme of cinema, you write articles and books, organize Internet blogs, perform, and even do radio shows and TV broadcasts. What drives you as a critic?

A. There are three things I do not wish to lose in life: humor, dignity, and curiosity. And I think curiosity is especially important if you want to do many different things for a long time. I am still curious about the latest books, films, and music, and I always wonder how the world is changing.

Q. You bring this up quite frequently, “Dig wide to dig deep.” What does it mean to you?

A. It is a quote by Spinoza. I often think about width and depth. Suppose you are shoveling to dig a hole in the ground. If you want to dig deep, you have to dig wide first. Between the two, I believe that the most essential truth in the world, whether applied to knowledge, career, or just life in general, width comes before depth. When people fail to properly dig widely, they tend to get trapped in their prejudice or ignorance; they sit inside their narrow, deep holes, look up at the sky, and think that they have dug enough. Width is not only a trait of the cultured, but it is also an ethical one.

Q. You are also known as ”Korea’s most famous religious studies graduate.” What motivated you to pursue religious studies in the first place, and how has your major shaped your present self?

A. Oh, is that so? To a young high school kid who didn’t know much of anything, philosophy, aesthetics, and religious studies all seemed kind of cool. So I went to the religious studies department office during summer vacation, and the TA working there told me some stories and handed me some books. Among those books, I was so mesmerized by Professor Chung Jin-hong's Introduction to Religious Studies that I decided to major in religion. I did work hard on my major as an undergraduate, but the fact that I majored in religious studies has not really influenced my film reviews that much. But I think it is true that studying religious studies has developed in me a certain of attitude that has influenced my life.

Q. What is the best thing you think you did during your college years?

A. The fact that I was able to experience various things, which includes earning money. I earned quite a lot as a student through private tutoring and such, and I was glad to give some help to my struggling parents. Aside from that, I always organized book clubs wherever I was - in school, the neighborhood, and even in the military – and read and talked about books.

Q. What are your regrets? Is there anything that you would do differently if you could go back to your college days?

A. It is my great regret that I never managed to learn how to play a musical instrument. I think all kinds of art, at its utmost essence, is musical. Maybe life is, as well. I enjoy music and had many opportunities to learn it, but, regrettably, I always gave it up because it was not high on my priority list. There are many instruments that I want to learn, especially the piano. I guess I can try learning it now, but I am still putting it off on the pretext of being busy. I think I will end up regretting this decision as an old man.

Q. How would you define an ”intellectual’?

A. I think those who can be critical of themselves are intellectuals. I believe that those who can accept that what they believe to be true can be wrong, and those who can adjust themselves accordingly when they encounter something that goes against their previous beliefs – these people are worthy of being called intellectuals.

Q. You said that there are still a lot of things you want to try. Could you tell us about some of your future plans?

A. As I have said before, I do not make big plans about the distant future -- things don’t usually go as planned anyway. My plans are daily, or weekly at most. For example, tomorrow I am going to give a lecture in Pangyo, watch a movie that will be released in a month, proofread and send the final draft of my upcoming book, and if time permits, add a post to my blog. I set up my time-operating plan to reduce the time that each activity takes up. To be honest, I do not even remember what I have to do next week.

Q. We are living in an era of uncertainty. What do you think people should keep in their mind while choosing a book to read or a film to watch?

A. I think you should just read books or watch movies as much as you can. I've just looked up YES24's bestseller list for a moment, and from what I've seen, most of the books in the top 10 are about money or are those so-called self-development books. Of course, they may be great books, but it seems like many of those who seek out such books treat reading as an immediate means of achieving a specific goal, be it financial success, self-development, or to put it simply, a better life. I think reading should be a purpose unto itself. Reading a specific book or watching a specific film does not reduce our anxiety. If reducing your anxiety is your objective, it would be more helpful to visit a hospital or consult with those that are close to you. You should read and watch something that aligns with your interest simply because you want to. Books are just books and films are just films, let us not go beyond that. However, if you make curiosity itself a habit, your life might just become a bit more colorful.

Written by Chae Hyun Kim, SNU English Editor, michelle25@snu.ac.kr
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, tlsmith@snu.ac.kr