K-Focus: Director Kim Ki-duk

Edges, Silence and Cycles: A brief guide to the outsider cinema of Kim Ki-duk by Dr. Anton Bidel

Kim Ki-duk is an outsider in his own native land. Born in 1960 in North Gyeongsang Province’s mountainous Bonghwa County, he dropped out of agricultural training school in his teens, and took work in various factories - as well as serving five tough years in the Marines. In 1990 he went to France to study art, financing his sojourn there by working on the streets as a portrait painter - a métier that would feature prominently in his second, Paris-set film Wild Animals (1996) and in his real-time semi-autobiographical revenge fantasy Real Fiction (2000). Having found his cinephilia in France, Kim returned to Korea in 1993, and began gaining notice for his screenplays. His low-budget 1996 directorial debut Crocodile was released domestically to considerable critical acclaim - although now, some 19 features later, that position has rather changed.

Overseas, Kim has been feted as Best Director in Berlin for Samaritan Girl (2004), and in Venice for 3-Iron (2004). His Arirang (2011) won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, and his Pietà (2012) won the Golden Lion at Venice - making it the first Korean title ever to win Best Film at one of the ‘top three’ international festivals. Yet here’s the paradox: though Kim is one of Korea’s best known film ambassadors abroad, drawing critical approval and even box office, he has become a veritable pariah at home, where he receives little press coverage, and where his films, when they are released at all, barely regis- ter with Korean cinemagoers. Perhaps this is because of the autodidact filmmaker’s lack of formal education - in a country where academic credentials are closely tied in with status and recognition. Perhaps it is because of abrasive public comments that he has made about other Korean filmmakers (and their audiences). Perhaps it is his films’ uneasy marriage of cruel human brutality to an abstract metaphysical poetic. Or perhaps it is because his Korean portraits, like those of the painter in Real Fiction, expose ugly, unpleasant realities that the subjects would prefer remain hidden. One thing is certain, though: the films of this outsider artist have, from the very outset, been populated with figures who themselves occupy margins of different kinds, giving expression to that deeply ingrained sense of alienation and injustice that Koreans call han.

This starts with his first film Crocodile, whose homeless, rape-happy antihero (played by soon-to-be Kim regular Jo Jae-hyeon) has made an enemy of the rest of the world, and of himself. Similar hardmen-protagonists - bullying yet bullied - feature in Kim’s Bad Guy (2001) and Pietà, while his female characters are often seeking escape from marital suffocation or betrayal (3- Iron; Breath, 2007; Moebius), or turn in desperation to prostitution (Birdcage Inn; Bad Guy; Samaritan Girl), or or even try to flee their own identity (Time). Kim regularly marks his characters’ extreme isolation by showing them on the run (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... And Spring; 3-Iron), on death row (Bad Guy; Breath; Dream) or even on floating homes (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... And Spring; The Bow) - and a more general desire for rebellion and revenge against (societal) wrongs can be discerned in Real Fiction, The Coast Guard (2002), Arirang (2011) and Kim’s newest film One on One (2014). Of course, there is arguably no edge more frayed in Korean society than the borders, physical and cultural, left by unresolved conflict between North and South, and Kim duly explores these too in Address Unknown (2001), The Coast Guard, and his screenplay for Juhn Jae-hong’s Poongsan (2011).

The marginalised, impotent status of Kim’s characters is sometimes expressed through their very voicelessness - something of a signature in the director’s oeuvre, with incidental appeal to non-Korean audiences. So The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001), 3-Iron and The Bow (2005) all feature principal players who, though not strictly incapable of speech, remain mostly if not entirely mute onscreen, while in Breath the prisoner Jang Jin (played by Chinese actor Chang Chen) has been rendered dumb by a throat injury. Meanwhile, the two main characters in Dream (2008) - one Korean, the other Japanese - speak to one another in their respective, mutually unintelligible languages - and Moebius (2013) unfolds its twisted Freudian psychodrama cum Buddhist parable without any dialogue at all. These characters are as unheard as, in Korea, Kim’s films have been unseen - and yet they find rich expression through other means.

There are other threads that one could trace through Kim’s work - his love of circular narratives and karmic trajectories, his use of religious allegory, his way with striking final images - all of which bind his collected works together with a vision that, though certainly challenging, is also remarkably coherent.

Pieta

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Crocodile

Film info

1996. Directed by Kim Ki-duk , starring Cho Jae-hyeon, Ahn Jae-hong, Woo Yoon-kyung, Chun Moo-song, Cert 18 , 102 mins.

Awards

Un Certain Regard
Cannes Int. Film Festival 2014

Kim Ki-duk’s equally beautiful and disturbing debut Crocodile is stark commentary of violence in South Korea, unlike any previously made Korean films. The film chronicles the life of a cruel thug named Crocodile, who lives on the banks of the Han River in Seoul under a bridge with an orphaned boy and an old man. Their home is a popular suicide spot with many desperate and depressed individuals throwing themselves off of the bridge. Crocodile makes his living by pilfering the dead bodies of those who commit suicide. One day a young woman looks to drown herself in the river but a whim Crocodile saves her life. Though this may have seemed to be a brave and selfless act Crocodile begins to use her for his own pleasures, striking up a strange and abusive relationship. Out of this ugly situation an unusual bond forms between the girl and the three vagrants, forming the most likely of family kinship.

Though incredibly low budget the mise-en-scene and unusual scenario produced by director Kim set the scene for the rest of his work. The focus on violence, cruelty, social outcasts, and redemption are all trademark Kim Ki-duk themes which run throughout each film. Crocodile is one of Kim Ki-duk’s bleakest yet most profound films the auteur has created and definitely not for the weak of heart.

Moebius

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Film info

2013. Directed by Kim Ki-duk , starring Cho Jae-hyun, Seo Young-joo, Lee Eun-woo, Lee Jung-hoon, Cert 18 , 89 mins.

Awards

Official Selection
Venice Film Int. Festival 2014

These words are something to consider after viewing Kim Ki-duk’s dissection of the modern family dynamic in Moebius. Possibly the director’s most controversial work to date the film, loosely inspired by various Greek tragedies, shows what happens when a woman is scorned and the aftermath left in her wake.

A justifiably jealous and crazed wife seeks vengeance against her adulterous husband. In a moment of insanity she grabs a knife and tries to castrate him. Fighting her off she turns her rage towards their teenage son, cutting his manhood off only to disappear into the night. Fuelled by guilt the father looks to explore every possible method to help his maimed son. With strong performances from seventeen-year-old newcomer, SEO Young-ju, and actress Lee Eun-woo, cast as both wife and mistress, the film takes the risk of using not a single line of dialogue with tremendous effect. A daring swipe at human behaviour and sexuality Moebius will leave you with questions and possibly some disturbing answers to some unanswered questions.

One on One

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UK Premiere

Film info

2014. Directed by Kim Ki-duk , starring Don LEE, KIM Young-min, LEE Yi-kyung, CHO Dong-in,YOO Teo, AHN Ji-hye, JO Jae-ryong, KIM Joong-ki, Cert 18 , 122 mins.

Awards

Best Film Venice Days
Venice Int. Film Festival 2014

Kim Ki-duk’s latest film, his 20th to date, opens with the grisly murder of a high school girl. The senseless death of the girl sparks a feeling of unease in the South Korean people. The violent act forces a small number of citizens to join together as a vigilante group, calling themselves The Shadows. Everyone involved in the girl’s death are quickly hunted down, tortured and forced to sign confessions.

A far more conventional affair for Kim Ki-duk, One On One is the winner of the Venice Days Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival this year. A revenge film shot within two weeks sees longtime Korean actor Ma Dong-seok (The Unjust) step out of co-star shadows and into the spotlight as the film’s lead.

One on One is a film Kim Ki-duk created out of the wish to express certain emotions and thoughts about contemporary Korean society where he sees corruption being considered an ability rather than a negative force. Loosely based on a real event the director looked to comment on, as he puts it, the “state of indigestion” people feel on witnessing the countless traumatic events happening daily. Kim Ki-duk wanted to ask himself and his audience “Who am I?” and what role each of us plays in stopping these terrible things.