Monday, May 14, 2018

Over Your Dead Body (2014)

AKA Kuime (喰女 クイメ )

Given the fact that Takashi Miike’s cinematic output is exhaustively prolific, oftentimes cranking out over 5 films per year (in 2001 alone he managed to turn in 8 feature films and 3 out of those 8 were Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuri’s), its astonishing that Miike somehow managed to find the time to squeeze in a stage play in-between film work. Granted, Miike turned to the stage in 2005 which, by Miike standards was a pretty light year in terms of output, with Miike only helming one feature, The Great Yokai War and several episodes of the Ultraman Max television series, so perhaps its no coincidence it was that year that Miike chose to make his theater debut. The resulting play was Demon Pond, a fantastic Kabuki fable based on Kyōka Izumi's 1913 play of the same name. While the play never traveled outside of Japan, luckily for Miike’s international fan base a performance was filmed and later released on DVD in 2008. Following his return to the horror genre with Lesson of the Evil (2012), Miike once again returned to the genre which he’s proven himself so adept with Over Your Dead Body, an absolutely brilliant example of the art form and a film which also see’s Miike returning somewhat to the world of theater by way of the most famous of all Japanese ghost stories.

Lovers Kousuke and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) have been cast as the leads in a stage production of Yotsuya Kaidan, a legendary supernatural tale. Off stage, Miyuki is loyal to Kousuke, however Kousuke is unfaithful and in the midst of an affair with another actress which Miyuki is suspicious of. The longer rehearses for the play go on, the stranger Miyuki’s behavior becomes and soon the plays central themes of betrayal, jealousy and murderous revenge begin to spill over into the actors real lives.

Over Your Dead Body sees Miike fusing the two approaches he tends to gravitate towards in his horror films, the first being mood as seen in the likes of Audition (1999) and One Missed Call (2003) combined with the occasional splash of visceral extremity more akin to a film like Imprint (2006). For the majority of the film, Miike employees the former, establishing a sense of unease from the very start of the film, developing a monumental feeling of dread that is sustained throughout the entire film. The film is an exercise in mood, the epitome of a slow burn with parts of the film being so languid its as if they’re taking place under water which only makes the already off-center tone of the film even more unsettling. What’s more, the central performance from Ko Shibasaki also feel’s slightly alien which couldn’t have been more on point given her characters psyche. Miike also uses sound and editing to their full potential, at times giving the film a Lynch or Roeg type of feel and much like those fellow masters, Miike masterfully plays with the idea of fiction versus the actors reality, with the themes of the play interconnecting with the actors offstage lives. While not an overt bloodbath, when Miike does let the blood flow its certainly memorable with some of the more graphic moments of the film recalling the fetal horrors of Imprint and a sly hat tip to Paul Verhoeven’s The 4th Man (1983) near the end of the film.

The film is also one of Miike’s most visually astonishing, featuring some truly awe-inspiring production design, lighting and costuming, particularly during the scenes of the play’s rehearsal and performance and it can only be assumed that Miike brought with him the tricks he used while constructing the filmed version of Demon Pond. The play, Yotsuya Kaidan, is again quite possibly the most famous ghost story in Japan. Originally written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV in 1825, the story has proven to been a constant source of inspiration over the years in the realm of Japanese horror having been adapted to film well over 30 times with film versions dating back to 1912. How Over Your Dead Body will eventually be ranked alongside other takes on the tale remains to be seen, however some Miike fans have expressed disappointment in the film, the main criticism being that the film is all build-up with very little pay off. Its true that those who go into the film expecting a gonzo horror freakout will probably be disappointed but its crucial to note that with a film like this, much of the pay off IS the build-up. Over Your Dead Body is a stylish, original take on a classic theme and not only one of the finest horror films to come from Miike to date, but just the kind of film modern horror is in desperate need of.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Lesson of the Evil (2012)

Its almost inevitable that the topic of violence is bound to make an appearance whenever Takashi Miike’s name is mentioned. Despite the fact that Miike has proven himself capable of many different things behind the camera, it seems as if Miike was destined to become known as a purveyor of extreme violence and gore. That’s not to say such a reputation is baseless. After all, when Ichi the Killer (2001) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, promotional barf bags were doled out amongst the crowd. So while Miike’s penchant for violence cannot be disputed, its interesting to compare Miike’s approach to violence with one of his biggest influences, Paul Verhoeven. Much like Miike, Verhoeven has long been critiqued for his heavy use of violence yet both filmmakers attitudes towards violence has never been singular. Verhoeven has presented violence in an unflinching, brutal manner ala Flesh + Blood (1985) and Hollow Man (2000) as Miike has in Audition (1999) and Imprint (2006), yet the unrelenting splatter seen in the likes of Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997) and Miike’s Full Metal Yakuza (1997) and Ichi the Killer easily cross over into over-the-top comic book absurdity, becoming hilarious in the process. Then there’s a film like Lesson of the Evil, Miike’s first full-on horror film since Imprint, which finds Miike combining both approaches, resulting in a sadistic, blackly comic masterpiece.  

Envied by his colleges and loved by his students, English teacher Seiji Hasumi is the most popular teacher at his high school, however one of Hasumi’s fellow teachers, Tsurii, isn’t as enamored with Hasumi as everyone else is, finding something suspicious about his demeanor. Tsurii’s suspicions aren’t without warrant, as Hasumi’s friendly and outgoing personality mask a murderous psychopath who’s true nature surfaces after Hasumi uncovers a bullying problem within the school and several trusting students confiding in him about another student being sexually abused by a gym teacher, forcing Hasumi to put an end to the school's troubles in his own unique manner.

Although much different in tone, its difficult to not compare Lesson of the Evil (Aku no Kyoten, 悪の教典) to Audition in the sense that, much like Miike’s breakout horror film, Lesson of the Evil finds Miike taking his time, slowly building up to an utterly jaw-dropping conclusion, dropping hints of what’s in store along the way. Essentially split up into three sections, the film begins with Miike establishing Hasumi’s reputation within the school, his rapport with the students and also spending some time with the students themselves, Miike’s reasoning coming into play later on. What’s especially interesting about the films first act is Miike’s early revealing of Hasumi’s true personality with his engaging in a sexual relationship with a student, setting in motion the direction the film will eventually take. Its during the mid-section of the film where things begin to grow darker in tone with Miike digging into Hasumi’s past and literally getting into his psyche, giving way to some memorable surrealistic sequences. Its during the final third where the film takes its most drastic turn, with Hasumi putting his warped plan of cleaning up the school into action, leading to one of the most barbaric bloodbaths ever committed to film. What’s more, Miike manages to sprinkle in bits of his thoroughly morbid sense of humor at certain points during Hasumi’s indiscriminate massacring of teenagers, namely Hasumi killing to the catchy tune of “Mack the Knife”, a decision that’s sure to take some of the most jaded horror viewers back a bit.

Although the film gives a fairly in-depth presentation of Hasumi’s past, the same year the film was released a TV mini-series prequel was produced, appropriately titled Lesson of the Evil: Prologue (2012). Leading man Hideaki Itô who played Hasumi in the film was also the star of the prequel, Miike however did not direct. It should also go without saying that in a filmography already filled with staggeringly audacious films, Lesson of the Evil is nonetheless one of Miike’s most brazen cinematic smacks in the face due to the film being made in an age where mass and school shootings are more or less a monthly occurrence so its really no surprise that a film featuring a teacher turning a shotgun on high school students wasn’t going to go down so well with certain people. Not to mention that the film also incorporates both homo and heterosexual relationships between teachers and students and Miike gleefully injecting his macabre comedic sensibilities into some of the more violent proceedings. Not that it mattered much to Miike. After all, he’s never exactly been one to cater to the hypersensitive needs of politically correct zealots. Given the cultural climate where said PC zealots run rampant in various forms of art, a film like Lesson of the Evil is gift and further proof that when it comes to cinematic transgressions, Miike is still one of the reigning kings.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Detective Story (2007)

With an exhaustive body of work covering every genre imaginable, Takashi Miike’s name is synonymous with many things to many people. When Miike’s films began gaining traction in the west in the late 90’s, Miike quickly became celebrated as a master of excess and with the likes of Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001), Miike’s reputation as a master of graphic horror with a penchant for shock was set in stone. Of course, Miike is far from a one-note filmmaker as his filmography clearly indicates and along with the excesses of Miike’s more well known works, another aspect of Miike’s unique vision that played a major hand in his gaining a following was the irreverent, oftentimes bizarre sense of humor inherent in his films, with the over the top nature of his films crossing over into comedic territory, be it the unique bodily functions on display in Fudoh: The Next Generation (1996) and Visitor Q, the later which is essentially a comedy at heart, the out of nowhere ending of Dead or Alive (1999), the innumerable surreal absurdities found in Gozu (2003) or the entirety of The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), a zombie comedy musical! Made for the Japanese video market, Detective Story is yet another instance of Miike flexing his genre bending muscle, fusing elements of horror and mystery along with his typically bonkers style of humor.

While moving into his new apartment, businessman Raita Takashima meets his new neighbor who also happens to be named Raita, Riata Kazama, a private detective. When a potential client of Kazama winds up murdered, the evidence at the scene points to Kazama. Soon more victims turn up, each missing a different organ and Kazama becomes the prime suspect, despite his innocence. In a desperate bid to clear his name, Kazama enlists the help of the other Raita to find the real killer with various clues leading them to Yuki Aoyama, a eccentric painter who’s creative process involves the use of very peculiar materials.

Despite the DVD cover making the film come across as something akin to the Saw or Hostel franchises, fear not as Detective Story (Tantei monogatari, 探偵物語) is anything but. If the film could be compared to anything, it actually shares more in common with something along the lines of Sergio Martino’s loony giallo/poliziotteschi/comedy hybrid Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), another film dealing with some rather dark subject matter but its oddball fusion of genres leads to some pretty strange changes in tone. With Detective Story, Miike takes a premise that in the wrong hands could have wound up being a pedestrian affair and injects it with a plethora of quirkiness, morphing it into an offbeat tale which ranges from disgusting to hilarious and oftentimes both at once. Its not that the central murder mystery isn’t enough to hold the entire film together as the mystery itself is wonderfully executed and the way Miike incorporates the painter into the proceedings makes it all the more interesting, not to mention grotesque, but the oddball touches Miike peppers the film with are what make the film stand out, such as the ridiculous wig Kazama wears as a disguise and the eccentric behavior of Kazama’s employee Mika who is responsible for one of the films more random, bodily fluid influenced gags. Miike even manages to include bits of sadness that he often incorporates into his horror films which incredibly doesn’t clash with the films other moods, even when the film is changing tones at breakneck speed.

One of the more curious aspects regarding the film is Miike’s smearing blood on the camera lens during certain scenes were the victims bodies are displayed, “blurring” some of the gore. This appears to be Miike having a bit of a laugh at Japanese censorship practices where normally genitalia is fogged while when it comes to violence and gore, most anything usually goes. Interestingly, there are moments in the film featuring un-obscured full-frontal nudity making the blurred gore seem all the more unnecessary which again, seems like a case of Miike taking the piss. Its also worth pointing out that actress Harumi Inoue has a role in the film. Inoue of course was the star of Takashi Ishii’s revenge masterpiece Freeze Me (2000) and was utilized by Ishii again in A Night In Nude: Salvation (2010) so appearances in films from the two most brilliant Takashi’s can be on her resume! Again, the film was originally made for Japan’s direct to video market (V-cinema), yet managed to get a limited theatrical release in Japan. Two years later the film made it to the States on DVD and surprisingly flew under the radar which is odd considering Miike’s cult following. Detective Story is certainly an oddity and although those not used to Miike’s idiosyncrasies will likely walk away from it perplexed, Miike fans who may have overlooked the film should find plenty to love.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Full Metal Yakuza (1997)

When Takashi Miike first began to blow the minds of western audiences at the dawn of the new millennium with Audition (1999) and several films that immediately became classics amongst cult and genre film fans like Dead or Alive (1999), Visitor Q (2001), Ichi the Killer (2001), The Happiness of the Katakuri's (2001) and Gozu (2003), the excitement of such an original and eccentric filmmaker probably led some to believe that Miike was a newcomer to the world cinema stage when in fact Miike was already an industry veteran by 1999. What's more, Audition was Miike's 31st film, with Miike's prolific tendencies making themselves apparent early in his directorial career. Like so many directors who entered the field following the video revolution, Miike got his start in the direct-to-video market, or as its known in Japan, “V-Cinema” or “original video”. Not unlike the American DTV market, V-Cinema films were often genre based, as genre films were known to turn a quick profit and the films were shot quickly and for very low budgets. Another parallel with the DTV films from the US, although restrained by the budget, V-Cinema films often allowed directors free reign in terms of creative control which led to some pretty interesting films. One such film being Miike's Full Metal Yakuza, one of Miike's first forays into fantastic genre territory, a completely unhinged fusion of sci-fi, yakuza/crime thriller and comedy.

Hagane, a low level and cowardly yakuza worships Tosa, a veteran gangster about to serve a seven year prison sentence whom inspired Hagane to join the yakuza. Upon his release, Tosa is ambushed after being set-up by members of the crime syndicate he belongs to and in the ensuing shoot-out Hagane is fatally shot while trying to shield Tosa from the bullets. Left for dead, Hagane wakes soon after only to discover that he has been revived by Hiraga, a mad scientist who has rebuilt him by combining metal with the usable bits and pieces from Tosa's body, including his heart. Reluctant at first to live as a half-human cyborg, Hagane soon embraces his nearly invincible robotic powers and with Tosa's dragon tattoo grafted on his back, sets out on a campaign of revenge against those who betrayed him and Tosa.

As if the plot didn't make it obvious enough, clearly the biggest influence going into Full Metal Yakuza (Full Metal gokudô極道) is Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987), with its mortal man shot dead then resurrected as a robot/human hybrid premise, however anyone thinking that Full Metal Yakuza is a shallow “homage” or “love letter” film would be sorely mistaken, as Miike takes the familiar set-up into some fairly uncharted, and at times sadistically violent territory. Obviously RoboCop also had a humorous streak, however unlike Verhoeven, Miike doesn't set out to make any sociopolitical statements with Full Metal Yakuza, the humor of the film is a of a purely absurdist nature, for instance Hagane's ridiculous dancing and prancing bullet deflecting technique or the running joke of one of Tosa's larger, lower body parts being grafted onto Hagane. Typical of Miike, the film has a tendency to shift from one mood to another, going from comedy to gangster thriller to hyperviolent splatter, yet it does all three so well. The humor works due to its sheer frivolity and Miike's acknowledgment of how asinine some of it is, the crime elements work due to the backstory of the betrayal of Tosa being rather intriguing and the violence and arterial spray is so over-the-top in spots it easily crosses over into farce territory. Miike even includes a potential love interest for Hagane which, all things considered, should drastically clash with the rest of the film yet incredibly Miike manages to make those moments seem genuine.

While discussing the origins of the film in an interview on the films North American DVD courtesy of Artsmagic, Mikke talks at great length about the freedom V-Cinema offered. For example, Miike hand picked the project himself after being asked what type of film he would be interested in making. Miike also emphasized the difficulties with shooting a direct-to-video feature due to the budget constraints and the fact that the film required a number fairly elaborate effects but assured that it never affected morale as everyone was enjoying their work. Miike also laments the fact that the days of making the types of direct-to-video films from the early to late 90's is more or less over due to the various changes in the Japanese film industry and how many aspiring directors learned the ropes in that environment, working their way up the ladder of various jobs on film sets. A pity, as it means there will be less visionaries trying their hands at outlandish material like Full Metal Yakuza. For Miike fans unfamiliar with his pre-Audition work, Full Metal Yakuza is a must-see film and makes for an even more interesting watch in the sense that it somewhat predicts later Miike films like Ichi the Killer with its comic book splatter and fairly similar (anti) hero as well as Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) which again saw Miike outrageously fusing the yakuza with the fantastique.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Dream (2008)

Being a self-taught filmmaker, in a way the majority of Kim Ki-duk’s films could be seen as experimental in that it could be said that Kim is always approaching the medium with an outsiders perspective. What’s astonishing about Kim’s lack of “formal” filmmaking training is that its impossible to notice given Kim’s impeccable sense of framing and his knack for arresting imagery. With a background in fine arts, Kim’s films are ripe with striking visual compositions, often symbolic in nature and would put many a film school graduate to shame. Kim also has an eye for the bizarre and grotesque as evidenced in films like The Isle (2000), Real Fiction (2000) and Moebius (2013), films which also demonstrate one of Kim’s key experimental characteristics, constant silence, with Kim often preferring his characters to say as little as possible or in the case of Moebius, nothing at all. The symbolism found in Kim’s films has tendency to be rather oblique, such as the final image seen in The Isle or the motif of a certain photograph in Bad Guy (2001), touches that take Kim’s films into surrealist territory and demonstrate a clear appreciation for the fantastique which begs the question of what would a full-on genre film from Kim be like? Perhaps the closest answer could be found in Kim’s 2008 film Dream, a beautiful and poignant film and Kim’s most fantasy based yet.

After waking from a dream in which he causes an accident, Jin, who has been dreaming more frequently, is astonished to discover that the accident actually happened. What’s more, the police arrest Ran, a young woman Jin has never met, after video footage shows her to be the cause of the crash. As both soon discover, despite being complete strangers to each other, whenever Jin dreams, Ran acts out the scenario in her sleep which soon proves to be detrimental to both, making both Jin and Ran desperate to uncover the cause and to put an end to the strange phenomena.

Dream centric films had been a long beaten dead horse before Kim approached the idea of Dream (Bi-mong, 비몽), however Kim manages to completely sidestep all the clichés that have become associated with films focused on dreams with a highly original film with his signature style all over the material. Rather than have the film be a continuous question of what is or isn’t a dream like the majority of similarly themed films, Kim goes the opposite route. While the lines between dream and reality are blurred slightly during the later half of the film, for the most part Kim makes it explicitly clear what is a dream and what isn’t, making the main focus of the film Jin and Ran uncovering the source of their predicament, what Jin’s dreams mean to Ran and why she plays out his dreams. The solving of this puzzle is particularly fascinating as it leads to the concept of the double or doppelganger that Kim played around with in Bad Guy and in one of the films most memorable moments, the characters find themselves face to face with both the subjects of their dreams and themselves. The relationship that develops between Jin and Ran throughout the film is rather sweet and Kim does allow time for some light comedic moments between the two, however the film inevitably takes a turn for the bleak with the intense emotional torment shared between the two manifesting itself physically, in proper Kim fashion, by the sticking of sharp objects into skin.

An interesting thing regarding Dream is its bi-lingual dialogue with lead actor Joe Odagiri speaking Japanese throughout the film while the rest of the cast speak Korean. Its also worth noting that Kim won best director at the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards which, considering Kim’s pariah status in his home country couldn’t have been more ironic. Dream was also the second film Kim directed in 2008 with the first film being Breath and it would be three years before Kim would direct again after a near-fatal accident on the set of Dream did a number on Kim’s psyche. During the filming of a crucial scene, lead actress Na-yeong Lee was nearly killed and the event had such a lasting impression on Kim he retreated from public life. This intense period of self-reflection was captured on video by Kim and turned into the documentary/self-portrait Arirang (2011) which documents Kim’s personal crisis following Dream. In the film, Kim repeatedly interrogates himself, directly referring to the scene in question asking himself “Hey Kim Ki-duk, why have you been living like this for three years since 2008... Is it because of that accident while shooting that jail scene in Dream… Frightened you, didn’t it?” Thankfully Kim overcame the trauma and continues to make original and daring films like Dream that strike a perfect balance between pain and beauty, leaving many a susceptible viewer completely shattered.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Samaritan Girl (2004)

Although it may seem fairly one-note on paper, the revenge film can be quite the versatile medium given the various angles the idea of revenge can be viewed from. Clearly the most well know and popular style of vengeance based films is the rape/revenge film, wherein sexual assault survivors enact righteous justice on their attackers, a formula perfected in films like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and Takashi Ishii’s Freeze Me (2000). An interesting twist on standard rape/revenge trajectory can be found in Ingmar Berman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and the film it subsequently inspired, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), which finds the parents of the victims seeking the vengeance. There’s also of course the vigilante justice revenge genre with the Death Wish series being the most famous example. Personal vendettas are yet another common prototype used to springboard a revenge film as seen in films like the exploitation classic Johnny Firecloud (1975) and Larry Clark’s blistering true crime saga Bully (2001). South Korean maverick Kim Ki-duk first tried his hand at the revenge film with the one-take experiment Real Fiction (2000), a highly original, self-reflexive film-within-a-film following a street artist getting even with all those who’ve wronged him. Four years later, Kim would again tackle the subject of revenge and so much more with Samaritan Girl, a deeply affecting film featuring Kim’s typically challenging approach to difficult subject matter.

In an attempt to afford two plane tickets to Europe, Jae-yeong and Yeo-jin, two high school students have turned to prostitution with Jae-yeong actually meeting the clients while Yeo-jin arranges the appointments and keeps the books. During a police raid, Jae-yeong jumps from a window as a means of escape and later dies from her injuries. As a tribute to her late friend, Yeo-jin begins seeing all the clients in her record book herself, sleeping with them then refunding their money. During one of her appointments however, Yeo-jin’s father Yeong-ki, a policeman, spots her with a client and soon begins following her clients, embarking on a camping of escalating violence.

Although billed as “a dark tale of revenge” on the DVD cover, it must be said that, while the film is indeed a dark tale and revenge does eventually play a major part in it, Samaritan Girl (Samaria, 사마리아) is still so much more and anyone going into it expecting something along the lines of I Spit on Your Grave (1978) are bound to be disappointed. Split up into three chapters, Kim covers a lot of ground with Samaritan Girl. The first chapter, “Vasumitra”, not only establishes the relationship between Jae-yeong and Yeo-jin but also introduces the various religious allegories that will hover over the rest of the film, namely Yeo-jin’s very Catholic mentality in regards to shame as it relates to her and Jae-yeong’s business practices. The films religious overtones are even more explicit in the films second act, “Samaria”, but also become a bit more obscured with Yeo-jin prostituting herself but returning the clients money as some sort of bizarre penance for her dead friend and as a way to feel less guilty. This second act also sets up the actions of Yeo-jin’s father and its during the films final third, “Sonata” where Kim lets Yeo-jin's fathers rage boil over into murder. What’s equally important, and for that matter emotionally cathartic, about the last act is the time spent alone with Yeo-jin and her father, in effect turning the film into a coming of age story of sorts, resulting in some of the most poignant moments in all of Kim’s filmography.

Like many of Kim’s other films, Samaritan Girl sees Kim shining a light on a darker aspect of South Korean society, a tactic which has made him a pariah in his home country. His main target in Samaritan Girl of course being teenage prostitution and naturally he was criticized for his portrayal and amazingly some critics even accused Kim of glamorizing underage sex work which is utterly asinine to anyone with a working brain, with Kim mentioning the issue in several interviews promoting the film. A 2012 study claimed that half of the 60% of teenage runaways in South Korea have turned to prostitution, citing academic and home pressures as their reasoning for turning to the streets. Its interesting to compare and contrast Samaritan Girl to Kim’s earlier Bad Guy (2001), which used the world of prostitution as its backdrop as unlike in Bad Guy, who’s main female character was forced into sex work whereas in Samaritan Girl Jae-yeong and Yeo-jin are acting of their own free will and although prostitution is used as the catalyst, Kim again has other things on his mind as well. Although it doesn’t seem to be as regarded as 3-Iron (2004), the other film Kim released the same year, Samaritan Girl is an essential Kim film and one that might be difficult to decipher but nevertheless gives another good example of Kim’s take on the human condition.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Coast Guard (2002)

Despite being one of the most well known South Koran filmmakers to adventurous fans of cinema and winning multiple awards at various festivals throughout the years, even taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, in Venice in 2012, in his home country Kim Ki-duk remains a bit of a pariah. Kim’s peculiar way of exposing aspects of Korean society he takes issue, which Kim himself described in a sardonic e-mail to the South Korean press as “uncovering the genitals that everyone wants to hide”, hasn’t exactly done him any favors and at one point in time Kim even suggested that he wouldn’t even seek any distribution in South Korea anymore. In that same e-mail, Kim hilariously stated “I apologize for exaggerating hideous and dark aspects of Korean society and insulting excellent Korean filmmakers with my works that ape arthouse cinema but are, in fact, but self-tortured pieces of masturbations, or maybe they're just garbage. Now I realize I am seriously mentally-challenged and inadequate for life in Korea.” Given his tendency to gravitate towards dark and challenging material, its unsurprising that Kim would center a film on war and the military, first with Address Unknown (2001) and later with The Coast Guard in 2002, a potent film tackling an incredibly loaded subject, the tension on the border between North and South Korea, filtered through Kim’s typically lethal and ultimately morose approach to human psychology.

Stationed at the coastline separating North and South Korea, Private Kang, an enthusiastic young solider is obsessed with catching a spy from the north, which he and all other members of his unit are given strict orders to shoot should they observe one. One night while Kang is on watch, two young lover cross over into a restricted area for a romantic rendezvous and Kang, believing them to be spies, unloads his rifle, killing the boy. Although rewarded with a weeks leave and congratulated for following his duty, Kang is unable to come to terms with having murdered an innocent civilian and is eventually discharged while Mi-yeong, the girlfriend of the man shot by Kang, has lost all touch with reality and begins returning to the military base, sleeping with all the soldiers. Unable to adjust with life outside the military, Kang too comes unhinged and after being turned away from the base after multiple attempts to return becomes murderous.

Kim’s films are often open ended in nature and although The Coast Guard (Hae Anseon, 해안선) features plenty of Kim’s trademark abstract imagery and is highly symbolic, what makes The Coast Guard stand out amongst some of Kim’s other films is that not too much is left to the imagination in regards to its main ideas. Obviously the most noticeable thing regarding the film is Kim’s antagonistic approach to South Korea’s mandatory military service and jingoism. Although the film never crosses over into Starship Troopers (1997) territory in its portrayal of hyper-militarism, its potentially dangerous effects are ever present, making the central story of Kang and his mental collapse all the more interesting. Given that Kim presents Kang’s mindset before his murdering of a civilian in a rather negative light, it begs the question of whether or not Kang’s psychological ordeal is intended to be sympathetic or not. This is of course in sharp contrast to the films other central story, that of Mi-yeong, who’s descent into madness following her boyfriends murder is undeniably tragic, with her repeated visits to the military base giving way to one of the films most unforgettable moments. Kim’s surrealistic imagery makes its appearances when he’s focusing solely on Mi-yeong, scenes which, despite being melancholic due to her mental state, also have a strange innocence to them, as if her insanity has freed her, if only temporarily as opposed to Kang, who’s torment eventually brings him to the streets of Seoul for one of Kim’s most memorable finales.

On the North American DVD release, Kim discusses his intentions in making the film, stating “The film talks about the tragedies that have become part of our lives as we live in a divided country. All young men still have mandatory military service, and many of those men protect the coastal borders in order to strop North Korean spies from infiltrating the South. In reality, it has been confirmed that we haven’t had any spies since the year 2000. But we still continue to put these young men through hardship after hardship in order to protect our borders. I wanted to show, through this film, the cycle of pain that we often incur upon ourselves in this situation. The same kinds of things can occur not only in Korea but also in the United States, when you are always preparing to attack and trying to defend during wartime. I wanted to show that you can’t really be happy during such times.” In a way the film couldn’t have been more timely and from a purely socio-political angle, the film is still as relevant as it was in 2002 and never once does the film, or Kim for that matter, come across as self-righteous of preachy. Perhaps a bit more talkative than most of Kim’s other work, The Coast Guard is nevertheless quintessential Kim, provocative, even quite brutal at times but most importantly, heartfelt.