Monday, March 21, 2016

Moebius (2013)

Never underestimate Kim Ki-duk’s ability to get himself into trouble. Along with being one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, one of the things that makes Kim such a fascinating character as well as a true maverick is the polarizing reactions to his films worldwide with many of his films getting excellent reactions at various festivals, some even winning major prizes while at the same time his films and the man himself have been equally vilified. The release of The Isle (2000) was delayed in England on account of animal violence and there were many reports of audience members either fainting or vomiting during screenings. The films instances of sexual violence also led critics to deride the film and Kim. Bad Guy (2001) angered many and even led some to label Kim as misogynist and morally reprehensible and Kim was also criticized heavily for his portrayal of teenage prostitution in Samaritan Girl (2004). A hefty amount of the negativity thrown towards Kim’s films has come from his home country of South Korea with Kim being very vocal about Korean society’s attitudes towards many of the ideas explored in his films so its no surprise that 2013’s Moebius irritated the Korean censors more than ever and turned out to be Kim’s most notorious film yet as well as one of his best and one of the most audacious films of the modern era.

In an attempt to get revenge on her adulterous husband, a scorned wife and mother attempts to castrate the husband although he manages to stop her, causing her to turn her attention to the son, successfully castrating him in his sleep before disappearing. Overcome with guilt, the father goes through with a strange act of penance while the son begins an odd relationship with his fathers former mistress before the mother suddenly returns causing things to go from bad to worse.

Not even the most thorough and detailed description of every frame of Moebius (Moebiuseu, 뫼비우스) could do the film justice. This is Kim at his most fierce and full-on since the days of The Isle, Real Fiction (2000) and Bad Guy. Moebius is a brash, perverse and morbidly humorous look into the home life of the most dysfunctional cinematic family unit this side of William Fridkin’s Killer Joe (2012). As minimal as the film is in execution, thematically there is quite a bit going on. While the film may center around the nameless family, Kim also throws in elements involving a local gang the son gets involved with which leads to the relationship with the former mistress and the castration angle gives way to a side plot featuring several characters finding ways to achieve orgasm though pain. Even with all the castration, rape and incest on display, the film could ultimately be seen as a black comedy as there is a surreal absurdity to it all, from the slapstick nature of the psychical altercations between the father and the mother to the matter of fact way characters scratch themselves with rocks or have knives plunged into their shoulders for sexual gratification. The film is also one of Kim’s most experimental in that not one word of dialogue is spoken in the entire film and really none is needed. The faces of the actors say it all, particularly that of actress Lee Eun-Woo in a brilliant duel role as both the mother and mistress.

Kim essentially went “gorilla” with Moebius, shooting on very low budget on a tight schedule and operating the film himself. Interestingly, there was dialogue written for the film although Kim eventually found it unnecessary. Kim had utilized silence before to great effect, most notably in The Isle and 3-Iron (2004) so its interesting why he waited so long to do a film that was completely dialogue free. No matter as the experiment worked. Needless to say, Kim didn’t have the easiest time getting domestic distribution for the film in South Korea where the ratings board gave it a “restricted” rating, meaning it could only play in specialty theatres. The problem being that no such theatres exist in South Korea meaning the film was basically banned, resulting in Kim having to make several cuts. Lead actress Lee Eun-Woo has stated how she witnessed first hand how the reaction to Kim’s films in South Korea is world’s apart from how well his films are received internationally, recalling watching Moebius at the Venice International Film Festival where the audience got it and found the humor in the film versus watching the film with a Korean audience that was gasping in horror the entire time. With a film like Moebius, both seem appropriate but love it or hate it, the fact remains that Moebius is yet another example of Kim’s ability to provoke while being completely original.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Time (2006)

While promoting The Isle (2000), Kim Ki-duk was asked by an interviewer if he’d ever seen Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). Kim’s response was “I saw Audition at Toronto and that movie made me realize that there is someone else out there like me. We are two of a kind.” Much like Miike, Kim has a very peculiar way of dealing with human relationships, particularly romantic ones. The romance in Kim’s films is often between two damaged souls and have either troubling beginnings and endings. For Kim’s characters, emotions that relate to love are like nerve endings. When exposed and irritated the response is extremely painful and reactions can be downright primal. In that sense Kim could also be compared to Andrzej Zulawski, although where Zulawski’s characters shriek and are almost constantly hyperactive, Kim’s are defined by their silence, with their occasional outbursts of extreme behavior doing the talking for them as evidenced in films like The Isle, Bad Guy (2001) and Moebius (2013). Despite the oftentimes dark nature of the romances found in Kim’s films, all of Kim’s films are made with heart which can sometimes make the films all the more divisive. Kim’s 2006 film Time is a quintessential Kim love story and a crown jewel in Kim’s filmography, working as both a twisted tale of jealousy and identity but also doubling as a rather biting statement on superficially in Korean culture.

Ji-woo and Seh-hee have been in a loving relationship for two years. Although he has never been unfaithful, Ji-woo has a wandering eye and Seh-hee is the extremely jealous type. Thinking that after two years Ji-woo is sick of seeing her face, Seh-hee decides to put herself through extensive plastic surgery, making her completely unrecognizable and disappearing from Ji-woo’s life without saying a word. Six months later, Seh-hee re-enters Ji-woo’s life with a different face and a new name, See-hee. The two begin dating (again) and Seh-hee’s plan seems to have worked as the new relationship has the spark of when they first met, however Ji-woo isn’t entirely over the old Seh-hee, causing her intense jealousy to re-appear as she finds herself competing with Ji-woo’s memory of her old self, forcing her to admit that she and See-hee are one and the same forcing Ji-woo to make a desperate decision of his own.

Parallels are often drawn between Time (Shi gan, 시간) and Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) which are apt in that both films feature protagonists consumed by obsession as a result of chasing ghosts however Kim expands on the idea by having a female character with a ghost of their own which Kim takes even further by having said ghost be themselves, or rather someone else's memory of their previous identity. As is the case with many of Kim's films, there is a great feeling of sadness that hovers around Time. Not just in the sense of Ji-woo's desperation following Seh-hee’s departure or even the crippling jealousy that consumes Seh-hee but rather knowing full well that the relationship that develops between Ji-woo and the “new” See-hee can only lead to more pain for both. One of the things that makes Time such a success is Kim’s ability to present the beginning stages of the fresh romance between Ji-woo and See-hee in such a light fashion with several legitimately sweet scenes such as the new couple spending the day at a park filled with surreal sculptures, just one of many examples of Kim’s meticulously composed imagery seen throughout the film. In Kim’s world however, there is always a lingering darkness and even these tender moments have a slightly morose bend to them. What’s also incredible is Kim’s ability to make the thoroughly disturbed Seh-hee a somewhat sympathetic character during the film’s third act, a testament to the incredible and at times unhinged performance of actress Hyeon-a Seong.

Again, Time could also be read as Kim commenting on an aspect of Korean society he feels problematic, in this case plastic surgery which is massive in South Korea. In fact, South Korea is nicknamed the plastic surgery capitol of the world and according to a 2012 CNN article, the business is only going to keep growing with tourists traveling to Korea specifically for plastic surgery. There are even hotels which partner with clinics giving travelers special package deals. Kim’s particular brand of social commentary hasn’t exactly done him any favors in his home country, with Kim releasing a particularly hilarious statement addressing his critics, “... I apologize for making the public watch my films under the pretext of the difficult situation of independent cinema, and 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.” What’s certainly not inadequate are Kim’s films with Time being one of his very best not to mention having one of the most original storylines while at the same time being visually and emotionally stunning . Time is a film with something to say and says it in a way that only Kim could. A modern masterpiece.