Kim Ki-young’s Hidden Gem

by Maya Kuzina

News category: General

In our third screening of Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement we introduce Transgression, a rarely screened work by South Korean film legend Kim Ki-young. Transgression eloquently unravels the season’s theme of confined bodies continuing the exploration of subjugated sexuality and human desire, now within the rigidity of the religious tradition of Buddhism. Unlike films from the previous events (301/302 by Park Chul-so and Eunuch by Shin Sang-ok, both available online along with the curators’ introductions) that unpick psychological and physical imprisonment, aesthetically supported by the suffocating interiors of a modern flat and a medieval palace, Transgression is located in the spacious mountaineering setting of a Buddhist temple. Away from secular hustle-and-bustle and the fog of war, young boys and girls enter priesthood, and in the search for spiritual liberation and immortality intend to renounce everything which is essentially human — their needs, dreams and desires, though not without a battle. 

The serenity of the landscape appears to be delusive, revealing the main characters Chim-ae’s, Dos-im’s and Myo-Hyang’s whirlwind of passion and torment. All of them are committed disciples but proving their devotion feels unbearable: Dos-im is teased by hunger while Chim-ae and Myo-Hyang are struck by affection for each other but have to resist their emotional and sexual desires. For Myo-Hyang, a faithfull nun, such transgression is particularly bewildering since in the Buddhist ethic one cannot achieve enlightenment without transcending bodily needs, particularly the desire for a female body which is traditionally considered vicious. Chim-ae and Myo-Hyang attempt to revolt, trying to resist the conventional dogme and reclaim space for the female body and human fragility within religion, yet also remain loyal worshipers. 

Traditionally the motif of hunger in Transgression is foregrounded as a key theme and interpreted as after-war personal hunger for life. It was filmed during the times of South Korea’s ‘Dark Age’ under the circumstances of ideological oppression and censorship. It indeed reads as a mysterious, sensual and entertainingly quirky story that celebrates perseverance, humanity and resistance — which nonetheless do not lead to liberation in Kim Ki-young’s reality. Revisiting the film today, the motif that feels stronger and more articulate is the director’s subversive take on female sexuality and body. It presents Transgression as a radical statement carefully wrapped into an innocent melodrama. 

Kim Ki-young is known for his exploration of such themes as gender essentialism, psychosexual idiosyncrasies, the battle for female liberation and resistance to societal oppression. His most groundbreaking and classic work that interrogates these matters is the Housemaid trilogy that includes the Housemaid (1960), Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire’82 (1982), two of them available through the digital collection of the Korean Film Archive as well as the director’s several other titles. In Transgression Kim Ki-young addresses the same questions and expands his own canon by mixing in a generational conflict and a critical overview of oppressive religious practices from the perspective of gender. 

In the times of confinement Transgression feels as an anthem for the much-desired human touch and care — a necessity we have all experienced during the lockdown. While being away from each other, highlighting this hidden gem in Kim Ki-young’s vast filmography and sharing it through small screens can also be an act of care in the world that has suddenly become digital. 

You can watch Transgression (courtesy of the Korean Film Archive) with a recorded introduction from KFN programmer Maya Kuzina in a specially created playlist on the KCCUK YouTube channel.