A photo illustration of Lee ChangDong.
Illustration by The New Yorker; Source photograph by Frazer Harrison / Getty

Lee Chang-dong on Writing and Filmmaking

The author discusses “Snowy Day,” his story from the latest issue of the magazine.

In this week’s story, “Snowy Day,” a private is on sentry duty with his superior, a corporal, when, as the title suggests, it starts snowing. Why did you choose this scenario as the basis for a story?

Koreans tend to accept the first snow of winter as a welcome and auspicious thing. Back in the days when there were no cell phones and people were more awkward in expressing their emotions than they are now, young people, when they asked someone they liked on a date, would say, “Let’s meet on the day of the first snow.” Then they’d excitedly wait for the first snow, wondering if the other person would really show up. So you could say that this story is also about a date that didn’t come true on the first snowy day.

On the other hand, all adult males in Korea are required to serve in the military, so some of the details in “Snowy Day” are based on my own experiences in the military in the late nineteen-seventies. For example, the memory of serving as a sentry one night during a heavy snowfall inspired me to write the story. Everything in my field of vision was covered in white, in snow, and only barbed wire remained. Another soldier and I were guarding that barbed wire like actors onstage in an absurdist play. And, ironically, there was an invisible barbed-wire fence between the two of us that could never be crossed.

Private Kim was a student before enlisting, and he seems singularly ill-suited to military life, whereas Corporal Choi worked in a bathhouse and appears to have a much tougher skin. How important is the question of class in the story? Does it color every detail of their interaction?

During the decades of rapid economic development under the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, which lasted from the early nineteen-sixties to the late nineteen-eighties, the group that led the struggle for democratization in Korea was university students. So, in that respect, you could say that the social position of being a college student in Korea at the time of the story’s setting was special. In poor rural families, daughters were sent to work in factories in the cities to earn money, and sons were sent to college to study. College students at that time had a self-conscious awareness of the fact that they studied at the expense of their poor parents and their sisters who were working for low wages. If they protested and resisted the dictatorship, that was partly because they had the innocence of young people who are sensitive to social injustice, but also because they had a sense of that debt and their need to represent the voices of the poor. (That is why it’s surprising to see young people today in South Korea being so politically conservative.) Private Kim, Corporal Choi, and the visiting female worker in “Snowy Day” are all characters who exist in such a class structure. Private Kim, who entered the army with the idealism of standing up for the people, now meets the real “people” face to face.

Outside the main guard post to the base, there are signs like “Crush Them from the Start” and “Exterminate Communism!” Does “Crush Them from the Start” refer to South Korea’s Communist enemies? Could it as easily be a description of what’s happening within the base?

Of course, the Communism to be crushed refers to North Korea. Large slogans like these are still posted at South Korean military bases, not only to raise the fighting spirit in soldiers but also to inspire ideological hostility. During military regimes, slogans like these could often be seen on city streets as well as on military bases. Now those slogans have disappeared from the streets, but they remain inside people’s minds.

The Korean Peninsula, divided into North and South, is the only place in the world where the Cold War system remains intact, and South Korea is still a country where McCarthyist arguments are openly circulated by politicians. In J. M. Coetzee’s novel “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the state creates imaginary barbarians outside its borders in order to rule internally, using fear, but in Korea a real enemy armed with nuclear weapons exists just across the border (and, in some ways, they frequently act like “barbarians”), even as the state creates an internal enemy. What I tried to depict in “Snowy Day” is an individual who tries to protect human dignity even in such a brutal system and situation, perhaps recklessly.

The story opens with the arrival of a young woman who is asking to see Private Kim. As the story unfolds, we learn that she and Private Kim met when she visited the base with her choir on a morale-boosting mission. This is the closest he’s ever come to a date. Do you want this encounter to feel romantic? Or does it take on the cast of romance retroactively?

The scene of the morale-booster performance at the Base Church was entirely based on what I saw in the military. Although I adapted the parts necessary for the development of the story, I tried to re-create it as I witnessed it, as much as possible, and I did not embellish or add spices to make it feel romantic. As it is an unadorned story, the episode, which feels realistic and somewhat ridiculous at the same time, does not even satisfy Corporal Choi, who was expecting an interesting love story. However, there was something poignant about that episode, just as I felt when I first witnessed it, and while I was writing the story I hoped that it would convey to the reader the beauty that lies at the center of the story of this brutal military base.

A soldier at a base on the coast was recently rewarded for his “one shot, one kill” marksmanship after he shot a possible intruder—that intruder turned out to be a seal. Corporal Choi seems to be as trigger-happy. Why is he so eager to use his rifle? Is it inevitable that he will?

The actions of Corporal Choi, who suggests shooting a drunken man caught in the barbed wire and even chambers a round in his M16, may actually proceed from such an intention, or it may just be a threatening gesture to Private Kim. Either way, what is clear is that he feels a strong urge to pull the trigger at that moment. At the root of that urge is dissatisfaction, and anger against society and the world that cannot be vented. And, to such suppressed anger and discontent, firearms were given—and even an opportunity to use them legally. Perhaps Corporal Choi wanted to fully enjoy the situation in which he had the power of life and death at his fingertips.

You published the story in South Korea in 1987. Does South Korea feel like the same country thirty-five years later? Could you imagine writing the same story today? What was it like to return to “Snowy Day” when you were working with your translators Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang?

Over the past thirty-five years, Korea has changed tremendously on the surface, but, as I said before, the fact that Korea is divided remains unchanged. The gap or conflict between classes seems to have become more complicated and ambiguous, as is the case throughout the world, but in Korea it is also deepening.

I could not write the same story now, because the military culture of the new generation in Korea has changed a lot. To translate “Snowy Day,” it was necessary to have a deep understanding of these changes in Korean society and in military life as well as the psychology of soldiers at that time. In that respect, I think my translators—Heinz Insu Fenkl, who is a novelist himself, and Yoosup Chang—were a rare find because they were so well suited for the task.

In the United States, you are perhaps best known as a director, for films such as “Green Fish,” “Peppermint Candy,” “Secret Sunshine,” “Poetry,” and “Burning.” Do these films feel like an extension of your fiction writing, or do the two genres feel like completely different undertakings? Have you ever thought of adapting “Snowy Day” for film?

I first started writing as a teen-ager because of my desire to communicate with someone (even someone whose face I couldn’t see) in order to overcome loneliness. That same desire is what made me a film director. You could say that writing a short story and making a movie are essentially the same for me in terms of trying to communicate. But film is not like literature—it’s much harder to “communicate” through film. This is partly because audiences are consuming more and more movies solely for the sake of entertainment and not for what they might communicate. When I’m making a film, I always try to find a new story to tell. Four or five of the short stories I’ve written have been made into TV movies, shorts, and stage plays by other people, but I’ve never thought of adapting them and turning them into films myself. I certainly haven’t considered making a movie out of “Snowy Day,” but, for those who have seen my movie “Peppermint Candy,” certain details of “Snowy Day” might feel familiar. ♦

Lee Chang-dong’s responses were translated, from the Korean, by Heinz Insu Fenkl.