Maybe I should have expected less before watching South Korean film “The Book of Fish”, which, to my dissatisfaction, turns out to be more about its two main characters’ relationship instead of how that old but famous real-life marine biology book in question was made. In my humble opinion, the movie could be more interesting if its partially fictional drama focused more on the latter instead of giving us a predictable bromance tale between two typically different characters, and I must confess that I could not help but sense a better story somewhere inside in its rather trite narrative.
During its opening scene, the movie gives us a succinct presentation of the historical background surrounding Jeong Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) and his two younger brothers around the beginning of the 19th century. Although they were prominent government officials and brilliant scholars under King Jeongjo of the Joseon dynasty, they were arrested for their connection with Christianity shortly after King Jeongjo died in 1800, and, instead of being executed like one of his younger brothers who refused to deny his Christian belief, Yak-jeon was eventually exiled to Heuksando, a remote island located near the south coast of the Korean Peninsula.
When he arrives in Heuksando after a long journey, Yak-jeon encounters a number of island residents, who welcome him anyway despite his current status as an exile banished by the king and his government. As settling in a house which has been taken care of by a perky widow who does not mind serving him at all, he comes to pay more attention to the environment surrounding the island, and that is how he becomes interested in writing a book about fishes and other marine organisms.
Although he is a practical scholar with some scientific knowledge, Yak-jeon still needs someone to guide and teach him on marine organisms, and, fortunately for him, there is a right guy for him in the island. He is a young fisherman named Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), and this smart lad is not so interested in helping Yak-jeon at first, but then he eventually agrees to help Yak-jeon mainly because Yak-jeon can teach him how to read those sophisticated philosophy books which may give Chang-dae a chance of upward social mobility someday.
Once Chang-dae officially becomes Yak-jeon’s pupil, Yak-jeon begins to share his considerable academic knowledge with Chang-dae, and Chang-dae shows lots of what he has learned for years as working on and around the sea day by day. Thanks to Chang-dae, Yak-jeon experiences and observes new stuffs he has never seen before, and, as learning more and more from his mentor, Chang-dae becomes more driven to attain what he has yearned since his childhood years.
Unfortunately, the screenplay by director/writer Lee Joon-ik does not delve that deep into this interesting case of knowledge exchanges. While Yak-jeon certainly has lots of things to tell his pupil, Chang-dae’s contribution to Yak-jeon’s marine biology book is flatly depicted via several short moments, though I will not deny that I was amused by a bit by the one involved with a huge specimen which Chang-dae happens to catch via an unlikely bait.
In addition, the movie often falters as trying to cover many different things within its 2-hour running time, and this weak aspect is evident especially during the last act where Yak-jeon and Chang-dae melodramatically become estranged from each other as expected. Around the end of the story, there naturally come some tears to be shed, but we observe this moment from the distance while not feeling that much of the historical importance of Yak-jeon’s book, and that is the main reason why the sentimental final scene of the film does not work as well as intended.
I also must point out that most of other characters in the film besides Yak-jeona and Chang-dae are more or less than underwritten plot elements. For instance, a subplot involved with Chang-dae and one feisty young woman in the island particularly feels too hurried and contrived, and the same thing can be said about the relationship between Yak-jeon and the widow character, who eventually becomes his lifetime partner as taking care of him a lot.
Anyway, the movie is not entirely without good elements to engage us. Lee and his crew members ably fill the screen with vivid period mood and details to be cherished, and cinematographer Lee Eui-Tae, who previously collaborated with Lee in “Sunset in My Hometown” (2018), deserves to be commended for a number of stunningly beautiful landscape shots presented on black and white film.
While they are limited by their archetype characters from time to time, Sol Kyung-gu and Byun Yo-han did a fairly good job of complementing each other on the screen, and, not so surprisingly, the movie becomes less interesting whenever they are not together on the screen. In case of the other substantial cast members in the film, Lee Jung-eun, who has been quite more prominent thanks to her unforgettable supporting turn in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), steals the show at every moment of hers in the film, and she is especially good when her character provides a no-nonsense comment on traditional gender roles at one point in the middle of the film.
Although it is competent in several technical aspects, “The Book of Fish” failed to impress me enough, and it is mildly disappointing compared to Lee’s several recent better works such as “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” (2015) and “Anarchist from Colony” (2018). I cannot recommend it because I still believe that the movie could have more depth and insight, but it was not a total waste of time at least, so I will let you determine whether you will watch it or not.