K-Movie Review: ‘The Book of Fish’: Black-and-White Film that Leaves Behind the Deep Afterglow

Edited by Hong Hyun Jung
Translated by Kim Hoyeun

There are only two colors, but it’s more energetic than any other movie and is filled with the scent of humanity. The picturesque scenery and people’s stories make a wonderful harmony with a black and white screen. As you follow the black-and-white tale, you will find yourself enjoying the deep afterglow with red eyes. Even I had no idea how vivid this black-and-white film would be.

Credit: Megabox Plus M

The Book of Fish is a work that expands the preface of the book about fish written by Jeong Yak Jeon during his exile on Heuksando Island with cinematic imagination. In the foreword, Jeong states that he completed the book with a young man named Chang Dae. Director Lee Joon Ik adds fictional flesh to the movie. Then he depicts Heuksando Island’s scene, where two characters of different statuses share their knowledge and write a book together, with his unique affectionate views on the humans.

King Jeongjo favored Jeong Yak Jeon. But in the first year of King Sunjo’s reign, he and his brothers are tortured during the Catholic Persecution of 1801. The persecution led to Jeong Yak Jong’s martyrdom, Jeong Yak Jeon, and Jeong Yak Yong’s exile to Heuksando Island and Gangjin. The beginning of the movie is sorrowful. On his way to Heuksando Island, Jeong Yak Jeon seems like he has no reason to live. The king left him high and dry. He crosses the desolate sea route and finally reaches Heuksando Island. However, from the small port, he is greeted by a sense of life different from the land.

Credit: Megabox Plus M

The Book of Fish breaks the stereotype of black-and-white movies that we often regard as calm and static. It’s dynamic, rich, and friendly. That’s because it solely focuses on the people. In Heuksando Island, where Jeong Yak Jeon and Chang Dae are reborn as friends, islanders understand each other’s difficult situations. The two’s special friendship begins right there. The islanders welcome Jeong, the criminal (religious reasons) as if he’s their guest. With their help, he regains his curiosity and is soon fascinated by the ocean. Chang Dae, a fisherman with a thirst for learning, tries to stay away from Jeong Yak Jeon, who goes against his belief in Neo-Confucianism. But he can’t completely push Jeong, who has naturally melted into the island life, away.

Therefore, this film is different from the other historical movies. Jeong Yak Jeon is an open-minded person who accepted Catholicism in Joseon, where Neo-Confucianism is centered. Rather than setting ranks, he is more interested in studies that can be of real help in people’s lives. That’s also the reason he writes the book of fish. On the other hand, Change Dae has been a fisherman all his life. So he believes that teaching himself with a book that he had to scrape for, broadening his knowledge, and practicing Neo-Confucianism is the right thing. He also dreams of a successful life. The two have different statuses, ages, and what they want from their academics. But Jeong holds out his hand first and suggests an equal relationship called the “trade of knowledge.”

Credit: Megabox Plus M

The actors’ acting that breathes life into the characters is spectacular. In particular, Sol Kyung Gu challenged his first-ever historical genre. But he turns into Jeong Yak Jeon, who was exiled to Heuksando Island, impressing us with his performance. He naturally unveils the character’s emotions, whose curiosity as a scholar and sorrow for the times intersect by adding depth with less rigidness. Byun Yohan also shows a steady and eye-catching presence. Aside from his flawless dialect, he resolutely portrays a person with a strong belief and plot. Later, in the scene where he confuses himself between reality and his ideal, he fills the screen with his bitterness. Lee Jung Eun, who acts as a stepping stone between the two, adds rhythmic vitality with her simple and deft presence.

The unexpectedly prominent lineup of guest stars is another attraction in the movie. Ryu Seung Ryong comes out as Jeong Yak Yong, while actors Jung Jin Young, Jo Woo Jin, Bang Eun Jin, Kim Eui Sung, and more enliven the story. Ryu Seung Ryong imprints Jeong Yak Yong, who shares different values as a scholar, with his solemn presence. On the other hand, Jo Woo Jin draws laughter as a “not-unpleasant” government official who cares more about his interest than the people.

Credit: Megabox Plus M

The Book of Fish is a movie that catches the eyes with its beautiful visuals and attracts people with stories that meet the present times. It unfolds a fun and easy plot by alluding people’s daily lives to Jeong Yak Jeon and Chang Dae’s relationship. But at some point, it arrives at the question.

Chang Dae cannot understand why Jeong Yak Jeon, his teacher and friend, live far from reality. Jang Yak Yong, exiled to Gangjin, writes various books, including Admonitions on Governing the People (guidelines and duties that the leader should follow). It is a different path in comparison to Jang Yak Jeon. Chang Dae’s concerns are not about right or wrong but about belief, attitude, and direction. We saw this kind of intense struggle in DONGJU: The Portrait of A Poet and Anarchist from Colony. And this time, Jeong Yak Jeon, who kept his belief even though he may go against the time, stands in front of Chang Dae. The long afterglow we feel after the movie is probably because the audience, like Chang Dae, saw the different perspective from the world that we know about through Jeong Yak Jeon.


Verdict: Director Lee Joon Ik talks about life in a more relaxed and comfortable manner (7/10)


Edited Hong Hyun Jung: I am a K-content guide who publishes various articles for people to enjoy Korean movies and dramas deeper and richer. I’ll introduce you to the works that you can laugh, cry and sympathize with.

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