Kim Ki-duk has earned himself a reputation as the enfant terrible of Korean cinema. Often compared to Takashi Miike or Lars von Trier, Kim Ki-duk is an extreme provocateur with a polarizing body of work to his name. Not the least contentious is his most recent film Moebius, which premiered in Korea last month.
Though not widely watched in his own country, Kim Ki-duk won the Golden Lion two years ago at the Venice Film Festival with Pietà, a brutal and sexually violent work dealing with incest which garnered instant controversy.
Moebius can be watched as a companion piece to Pietà, though with a darkly satirical undertone. Kim Ki-duk resumes his commentary on family relationships with an unsettling premise at the crux of the action: castration. Within the first several minutes of the film, a mother seeks revenge on her cheating husband by attempting to sever his member; when she fails, she turns on their teenage son.
In choosing such profoundly uncomfortable subject matter, Kim Ki-duk seeks both to provoke and to ridicule the subconscious fear many men harbor of losing their "manhood." He then criticizes the often cavalier attitude toward infidelity in Korea (the father is deeply unconcerned with his wife's knowledge of his affair) before training his gaze on the figure of the overbearing mother.
"Oedipal" is an appropriate way to describe his films of late - Pietà and Moebius work together thematically and underscore the director's commitment to explore the outer limits of human suffering and the dark corners of sexuality. Moebius has obvious shock value and will be too much for some - but buried under the discomforting visuals is a sense of black humor and the absurd that cannot be overlooked.
Kim Ki-duk deserves some praise for his work with actors in this particular film, pushing them into genuine performances that hold nothing back. Their acting is made all the more impressive by the film's absence of dialogue. Like Kim Ki-duk's previous movie 3-Iron (2004), the actors are mute, and therefore all action is conveyed visually - and through various cries of anguish and pleasure. This form of extreme visual storytelling adds an atmosphere of the theatrical, but it works. In the director's commentary track on 3-Iron he states: "Even without dialogue, the audience can understand the nuances." We certainly can.
In 3-Iron, a battered wife finds unorthodox sexual and emotional fulfillment. She absconds with a young man who spends his days breaking into unoccupied homes only to eat the owners' food and wash their laundry. As with Moebius, the focus rests on visual cues and physical expression. Even Pietà's dialogue is minimal, and the action could be followed without the small amount of language present.
In his most recent two movies, the director has fully embraced digital filmmaking. Though digital cameras are now highly capable, Kim Ki-duk eschews any attempt to make video look like film, and instead seems to highlight all of video's ugliness. His celebration of digital grit fits his subject matter and the shabby Korean architecture that features in both films.
This strategy also marks an aesthetic departure from the serene contemplation and powerful composition of earlier movies like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003). Though the recurrent Kim Ki-duk themes of guilt, suffering and sexuality are evident, the pacing is deliberately slow and the imagery masterful. Shot on Super 35 on a lake in Juwangsan National Park, the cinematography captures the full glory of seasonal colors. Kim Ki-duk imparts the beauty of monastic life as a monk and his young pupil travel to and from the shore to their floating shrine. If anything, the director has demonstrated his versatility in the visual medium over the years, frequently reinventing his approach to filmmaking.
Not surprisingly, Kim Ki-duk meets with little appreciation at home - he provokes to an extent unseen in mainstream cinema, and the discomfort his films elicit ensures a small audience in a country whose film industry parallels the Hollywood banal. Furthermore, the black humor and dark sensibility of his recent work makes acceptance here difficult - it smacks of European art house venues more than the birthplace of K-pop. Yet Kim Ki-duk continues to produce here, and will no doubt continue to defy expectations.