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Kim Ki-Duk - The Bad Boy of Korean Cinema

Written by Alison Jobling Tell a Friend

If you're just looking for a pleasant evening's entertainment, then best you don't look to Kim Ki-duk. His films are uncomfortable, disturbing, often cruel. But if you're willing to be challenged, to rethink some of your ideas, and to learn a little more about human nature at its best and worst, then you'll want to watch some Kim films. Like Hong Kong director Johnnie To, Kim is able to create an intriguing world with minimal dialogue, portraying characters whose actions hint at the turbulent depths roiling beneath the surface.

Taking The Path Less Travelled

It may be that Kim's uncommon films are a reflection of Kim's uncommon life. Most filmmakers either study at film school or work their way up in the business: Kim did neither.

Kim was born in a village in the mountains, and went with his parents to live in Seoul when he was nine. After dropping out of high school, he worked in factories for some years, and joined the military at age 20. He spent five years there, followed by two years at a church, after which he went to Paris to study art. For two years he lived in Paris, living the almost stereotypical life of a struggling artist. This mixture of jobs and scenes gave him a wide experience of life, and finally drove him into filmmaking.

Kim's films are all, in some way, reflections of the lives of people marginalized by society. His first film, Crocodile (1996), has as its central character a man who retrieves the bodies of suicides from the Han River that flows through the center of Seoul. His second, Wild Animals (1997), once again focuses on Korean lives, this time through the medium of two Korean emigres living in Paris. His examination of Korean society, often through the lens of the underside of that society, runs through most of his films, challenging the viewer with the unhappiness that hides at the margins.

The Bad Boy Director

Kim has been called misogynist by some critics, who charge that many of his films contain unsavory female characters or extreme cruelty to women. This accusation is frequently leveled at The Isle, Kim's 1999 thriller whose protagonist, a mute woman, tends the small floating shacks catering to fishermen on a lonely lake. The woman provides bait, provisions, and occasionally her body to the fishermen, all for a fee.

The tension builds when she encounters a new tenant of one of the shacks: a man on the run, wanted for murder, who is trying to hide from pursuit and himself. The two begin a strange relationship, driven by desire and desperation, when she prevents his suicide. This relationship, although containing none of the flowery elements of common cinematic romance, is still a form of love, albeit a dark and twisted form.

This darkness and cruelty is at the heart of much of Kim's work, and is also what attracts so much controversy. The use of fishhooks, as instruments of attempted suicide and self-mutilation, makes this a highly uncomfortable film to watch, and raises suspicions of deliberate shock tactics. But Kim, unlike other shocking directors such as Miike Takashi, follows through: rather than simply showing a scene of cruelty unsupported, Kim provides the consequences. In this instance, we see the attempted suicide gagging and twisting through the woman's unhurried removal of the fishhooks he's tried to swallow.

Uncomfortable to watch, as I've said. But episodes such as this convey the emotional bond between the two far better than mere dialogue. And the uncomfortable nature of the film does provoke thought, which is often Kim's aim: never subtle, he does rub your face in it, but with this film as with Bad Guy, he is trying to show the cruelty that is part of human nature, rather than constructing a pleasant romantic fantasy or mindless action adventure. And he reminds us that actions have consequences, a rare thing in the often saccharine world of cinema.

Bad Guy (2002), his other highly controversial film, also features a mute character. This time it is a pimp, who snares a young college girl into prostitution. The controversy was not so much with the subject, as with the treatment: Kim's film is not a simple stereotyping, with good guys and bad guys clearly delineated. Rather he brings the viewer into his world, attempting to force acknowledgement and understanding. This is a theme that Kim returns to over and over again: more than most filmmakers, Kim is making a socio-political point with each film, challenging the audience to see the world as others see it.

No Spear Carriers For Kim

For centuries, creators of drama have used minor characters sometimes referred to as 'spear carriers': characters whose only function is to be killed by the hero. And while it's true that there's not enough time in a play or film for a complete exposition of the life and times of every character, it's also true that such narrative conventions most emphatically do not apply in real life. This may have been part of the motivation behind The Coast Guard, Kim's 2002 film focussing on the fracture in Korean society brought on by the Korean war.

The very popular Jang Dong Gun plays the central character, a soldier assigned to the unit watching the coast for attempted infiltration from the North. Jang, a model and actor of striking good looks, is recognizable from such films as Nowhere To Hide and Friend. He brings to his character the intensity of an ambitious solder wound over-tight, a man pulled between the conflicting demands of normal society and an ongoing state of war.

Kim's time in the military undoubtedly informs his central character, and reflects the fracture between the military and the wider world. Within the military context, the soldier's behavior is simple and appropriate: he single-mindedly works at being the best soldier he can be, and takes the threat of infiltration to be a serious one. To the other soldiers, who are not as dedicated, he seems odd and obsessive, but his behavior is entirely consistent within his world-view.

This world-view is disrupted, however, when he takes action one night. A local couple sneak out to the demilitarized zone to make love, and our soldier kills the man, thinking him a North Korean spy. And it is from this point that Kim's film diverges from what might have been a standard action movie. The dead man has friends and relatives, who confront the soldier. The girl, who has seen her lover die on top of her, loses her mind. The military hierarchy cannot commend the action of a man who has killed a civilian, despite the fact that the killing necessarily followed from the mind-set instilled in this most dedicated of soldiers.

The man who believed utterly in the rightness of his orders and the gravity of the situation is confronted by the untidy reality of grieving relatives. The supposed North Korean infiltrator, a spear-carrier in a larger, shadowy war, becomes an innocent, with friends and relatives like any other. The conflict drives him to madness, slowly and painfully.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003) seems a departure from Kim's world of everyday cruelty. The floating hermitage on Juson Lake, tranquil and beautiful, serves as the setting for the trials of one man, one life. In that life, Kim embodies all the lessons of cruelty, lust, anger, and confusion that have permeated his other films, but pared clean of extraneous matter. This may be Kim's finest work to date, with its seamless transitions from youth to maturity to age, in accord with the seasons.

Although The Coast Guard and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring may seem wildly different films, both follow a common underlying thread. Both films refute the ideas that violence is a solution, that there are absolutes of good or evil, and that revenge has an end. To Kim, it is clear that violence and revenge do nothing but produce more violence, more revenge, in a cycle without end. This theme is very clear in Address Unknown (2001), a film in which Kim takes on the thorny issue of the US bases in South Korea. In this admittedly hard-to-watch film, Kim confounds expectations of a polarized occupation by showing that everyone, even the occupation soldiers, are the main characters in their own dramas. There are no spear-carriers here, and no easy answers.

Back To Sex

Samaria (2004) sees Kim returning to the theme of prostitution, although with yet another twist. The prostitute here is a schoolgirl, convinced by an old Indian tale that she can bring men to Nirvana by selling her body. When her plan goes tragically awry, her best friend and pimp takes up the quest, servicing each previous client and paying them. When her father learns of her activities, he takes violent action, and once again we see Kim defying genre expectations to produce a film that cuts deep below the superficial layer of cinema-as-entertainment to the meat of human existence beneath.

Kim's latest film, Three-iron, also deals with themes of sex and identity. And once again, Kim takes a different path, following a benign housebreaker as he invades a house occupied by a married woman. He enters into a relationship with the woman, then into prison, and out again, all the while tangled in a confusing web of human emotions and disaffected communication. Like every other Kim film, this latest may be confronting. It may be uncomfortable. It may even be distressing. But like every other Kim film, it will certainly be thought provoking.

Published February 18, 2005

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