It’s now been a decade and a half since Kim Jee-woon’s directorial debut. In that time he has left behind a string of memorable films in various genres and styles, many of them now recognised as iconic works. It’s hard to imagine the movement now referred to as New Korean Cinema without wrestling comedy The Foul King (2000), horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), the elegant gangster-noir A Bittersweet Life (2005), or the funky Western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008). But in between these ambitious features, Kim has continued to direct short films, whether as segments in omnibus projects or as freestanding works commissioned by corporate sponsors. In total he has made seven shorts, averaging one every other year.
It seems clear that it’s not just the merits of these individual projects that has drawn Kim’s attention, but something in the format itself that suits his filmmaking approach and sensibilities. He seems particularly comfortable in the 30-minute to 45-minute range. Compared to a full-length feature, from which audiences have come to expect standard three-act narrative structures, mid-length works lend themselves to a subtly different kind of storytelling. Films such as Coming Out (2000), Heavenly Creature (2012) and One Perfect Day (2013) are structured around a clever central concept, but are less plot- driven than the average feature film. Neither are they short sketches: Kim takes the time to develop his characters and to create a distinctive mood and setting which complement the central idea. The cold, polished surfaces of Heavenly Creature and the alluring but strangely empty romantic setting of One Perfect Day add resonance to the conflicts at the heart of these stories.
In his filmmaking in general, Kim displays an inclination towards suggestion over declaration. You can see it in the way he directs his actors to hint at, but never reveal, their inner emotions. While watching a Kim Jee-woon film, questions continually surface in the viewer’s mind. Kim may conclude his works with a flourish, but his endings rarely impart a sense of closure, allowing the questions to linger on only partially answered.
In a commercial feature film, you can only push the art of suggestion so far before audiences or investors start to grow uneasy. It’s not that his mid-length films are radically ambiguous, but the shorter length has allowed for Kim to strike a more comfortable balance between the mechanics of telling a story and his impulse to disrupt the cohesion of that story with vague hints, contrasting moods and a lurking sense of doubt. A film like One Perfect Day can potentially be viewed as an odd, light romance, but some brief flashbacks and the startling final scene hint at much deeper rifts within the main character’s psyche. It is this sort of glimpse into a darker, complex undergrowth that makes Kim’s short films so unpredictable and intriguing.