In less than a few weeks since the celebrated Argentine filmmaker Fernando Ezequiel Solanas—a legendary figure in Latin American cinema—died of coronavirus in Paris, another internationally admired filmmaker, Kim Ki-Duk, fell prey to the rage of the pandemic in Latvia. The South Korean ‘new wave’ fame Kim was reported to have arrived in the Baltic state a few weeks ago with a view to exploring the possibility of getting a residential permit in connection with his new project. He was also planning to buy a house in Jurmala which is located on the outskirts of the capital city, Riga.
A well-acclaimed moviemaker—whose films won several awards and laurels at the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival etc—Kim earned both fame and stain for his captivating and provocative themes/visuals in his production—these themes vary from violence, lewdness, savagery to spiritual and existential subjects. The best-known productions of Kim are The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), 3-Iron (2004), Samaritan Girl (2004), Breath (2007), Dream (2008), Amen (2011), Arirang (2011), Pieta (2012), Moebius (2013), Net (2016) etc. His recent films include Human, Space, Time and Human (2018) and Dissolve (2019).
Born in a middle-class family in 1960, Kim had troubling days in his early years. As a school drop out, he had to work in a factory for a while, under pressure of his family and, later, joined the Marine Corps. That too, he left soon. But it was during his volunteer service in a Baptist church that Kim developed an interest in painting. This led to his leaving for Paris which became a turning a point in his life. In an interview he said:
I spent two years as a painter on the beaches of Montpellier in France. I didn’t have any official exhibitions or anything; I just painted by myself and exhibited my work on the streets. I also had some street-exhibitions in Munich, Germany, where I got to know the work of Egon Schiele. The reason I chose his paintings [i.e. their reproductions in a book] in Bad Guy is because at first glance they look vulgar and appear to deal with obscene subjects. But if you actually look at them closely, they are very honest.1
As a sidewalk artist, he had to struggle but Kim was determined to go ahead with his newfound interest in film and script writing. Among the early influences on his thinking was the social alienation in his home country, which got reflected in many of his films. Likewise, the memories of a host of events, like the Japanese occupation of Korea, the division of the country following the second world war, the Korean war etc had a deepening impact on his craft.
In the 1990s, South Korea witnessed new forms of crises and challenges. The 1997 financial crisis and the emergence of neoliberalism brought in major changes in the society and economy. Kim emerged at this time as a new generation director along with Kang Je-kyu, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong. In the changing social setting of Korea, the new wave films began to pick up historical events and ideas that were forbidden under the authoritarian regime. These new generation directors were instrumental in making South Korea cinema challenging entries in prestigious international film festivals.
Kim set about his film career as a screenwriter and made his directorial debut with the 1996 feature Crocodile which, by deploying new techniques and spectacular symbolism, dealt with suicide and abuse in an engaging style. After four years, Kim’s The Isle set in motion a wave of Korean entries in international festivals. The film was screened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals though its reception in his own home country was very low. Kim himself admitted this in an interview and said that The Isle was a low budget film, but in Korea such films would not get wide audience and thereby its success could only be marginal. The Isle, which revolves around a remote fishing ground owned by a mute woman, unfolded human condition in a metaphoric mode. Address Unknown (2001) was his political film which sketches the wounds left by the Korean war of the 1950s and its contemporary reverberations on a US Army base.
Kim’s masterpiece was undoubtedly Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring which portrays the life of a solitary Buddhist monk at a floating Buddhist monastery on a lake. In a review, David Sterritt wrote that the film “conjures a sense of spiritual discipline as suspenseful as it is stunning to watch and exhilarating to contemplate.”2 According to Kim, in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring “there are typically at least two beings in each scene and that is his own allusion to harmony, as the possibility of conflict and harmony occurs when there are two beings or realities present.” He said that he used film “as a medium to illustrate the metaphors that are important to me.” Since his first film, Kim was reported to “have tried to make films with religious motifs.” “These motifs are mixed with themes of sin and self-wounding situations. People can choose whatever they want to see in my films. I leave the choice up to the audience. However, the religious elements in my stories offer a return to Mother Nature and innocence. These days, our lives are full of artificiality. We have to try much harder to regain our innocence.”3 Paula Marvelly, Editor, The Culturium wrote that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring “ transmits a transcendental beauty all of its own, elevating the soul with its elegant and timeless aesthetic from innocence, through love and evil, to enlightenment and finally rebirth, subtlely and silently observed by the impassive gaze of a bodhisattva.” 4
In 2004, Kim won laurels for his Samaritan Girl (Silver Bear award) and 3-Iron (Silver Lion award) in the Berlin and Venice International Film Festivals respectively. There were a few films he made since then, but they did not make much impact till 2011 when his documentary Arirang was acclaimed in Cannes Film Festival’s UnCertain Regard section. The film actually portrayed his own personal setback in the wake of Dream’s production in 2008 wherein Lee Na-young, the lead role played by her in the film, nearly died by hanging. Amen (2011) was yet another experiment of Kim—both in terms of cinematography and narrative, as well as its technical aspect.
Pieta (2012), Kim’s 18th film brings to light the complexities of human relations within an exploitative capitalist system, with sequences of how family gets dislocated and money builds new locale of disquiet between people. It tells the story of a loan shark who uses brutal methods to collect returns from distressed borrowers for his moneylender boss. The film then unveils the events in an offbeat mode with a mysterious woman emerging. The film epitomises violence and sexuality with bluntness as if they represent only physical pointers of fear and misery. Kim later told in an interview that “this is a universal experience not only in South Korea but also in Europe and U.S. The notion of forgiveness and distrust in the film is something we all need to think about on a humanistic level.” Pieta won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and got awards and acclaims in other international festivals. He had come to India in 2012 and 2013 at the height of his esteem across international festivals. Kim found the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) quite amusing and exhilarating with tens of thousands of people running after his name, festival after festival. He told reporters then that he could not find a similar popular enthusiasm anywhere in any festival—leave alone his own home country.
Moebius (2013) shows Kim’s predisposition for atypical themes. Moebius as a dialogue-free movie seeks to reinforce viewer engagement in a different way. As Panos Kotzathanasis wrote,
Kim’s obvious purpose was to shock his audience and he definitely succeeded in doing so. Almost every onerous notion is present in “Moebius”, including self-torture, misogynism and Oedipal inclinations. Adding to the sense of perversion erupting from the movie is the almost complete absence of dialogue, a tactic meant to force the spectator to focus on the very graphic images.5
Notwithstanding the setbacks with some films, Kim made another good attempt in The Net (2016). The Net critically takes on the partition fallout of North-South Korean breakup. As a political project, the principal theme of the film puts in place the dilemma of how citizens of the divided countries tend to view each other and the inside/outside problematic of modern nation-state through the prism of their political ideologies. The story begins when a North Korean fisherman—having his boat unintentionally moved into South Korean waters—is captured and suspected of being either a defector or spy. Through the episodes of interrogation and incarceration, the film makes the point that the doctrinaire burdens under both democratic and communist systems make freedom and the right to life worthless and thereby they are subject to the diktats of all-powerful, despotic systems.
Earlier, Kim’s Stop (2015) sought to offer a deeply emotional story of the dreadful fallout of nuclear radiation on a family. This was done in the context of Fukushima disaster. It depicts the story of a young Japanese couple and how they encounter problems after moving to Tokyo from an area near the disaster-struck Fukushima nuclear plant.
Kim’s Human, Space, Time and Human (2018) puts across a queer problematic of human life in a socially divided world. The film is set out in a cruise trip where the passengers converge from various cultural and social backgrounds. The ‘time-space compression’ in this social microcosm makes room for negotiation and rivalry for justice and fair treatment under conditions of social division, scarcity and danger. Extreme violence, savagery, lewd bouts etc occupy the conditions of ‘life’ in the ship and the ship transforms itself from one level to another. Though the film raises some philosophical questions, it has not been adequately reviewed in the background of allegations of sexual assault against Kim and the subsequent court cases. The film was also not allowed to be released in South Korea. The #MeToo movement made him so unpopular in his own home country.
Kim admitted later that there was “a regrettable case” which happened a few years ago, while making Moebius. The public prosecutor saw his slapping an actress as ‘problematic’ and thereby the court fined Kim for the act. But the court apparently did not charge him for the alleged sexual assault. Dissolve (2019) was his last film which was shot in Kazakhstan. This Russian language film was screened at the Cannes Film Market under the temporary title 3000. Kim was also planning to take a new film, Rain, Snow, Cloud and Fog, a co-production between Korea and Estonia. His visit to the Baltic state would have been associated with the new venture. Kim knew very well that the recent incidents would have damaged his reputation in his own home country. Moreover, he believed that being popular in South Korea would imply essentially three things: “major investment, major distribution and a well-known actor.” Kim admitted that he had “come too far away from those things.” To a question why his work was loved and better appreciated outside his home country, Kim said, “my stories are based on the universality of human beings. I mean every nation revolves around its people, but we Koreans have stronger pride in ourselves as we are taught that we are superior to others. But if you travel around and see the world, every nation has its own uniqueness and I like putting that in my films.”
One of the most persisting questions he encountered in the world of his cinema was the subject of violence in his films and its barefaced portrayal. In the interview with Volker Hummel, Kim said: “The violence that they turn to, I prefer to call a kind of body language. I would like to think of it as more of a physical expression rather than just negative violence.” He pointed out that the people might consider his new films “brutal again.” But, Kim said, “this violence is just a reflection of what they really are, of what is in each one of us to certain degree.” He strongly believed that a director “should not define everything.” Every movie “is a form of a question” posed to the audience: “I want to ask their opinion on my point of view and discuss it with them.” Moreover, Kim used to remind: “I try not to interpret things of the world into a single meaning. Rather, I try the opposite.”
Kim Ki-Duk emerged as a new wave filmmaker in South Korea in a critical juncture, with provocative themes and bewildering narratives. His early films were undoubtedly more persuasive and intellectually engaging. Yet, he has been a demanding filmmaker across the world. Kim’s cinematic legacy is enduring insofar as his creative sway is larger than life with a universal appeal.
- “Interview with Kim Ki-Duk by Volker Hummel,” Senses of Cinema, 2 March 2002, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/kim_ki-duk/
- Daniel Garrett, “Everything Must Change: Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, … and Spring; and Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son, Off-Screen, 31 August 2004, http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/spring.html
- Paula Marvelly, “Kim Ki-duk: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring,” The Culturium, 17 February 2019, https://www.theculturium.com/kim-ki-duk-spring-summer-autumn-winter-and-spring/
- Panos Kotzathanasis, “Film Review: Moebius (2013) by Kim Ki-duk,” AMP, 9 January 2016, https://asianmoviepulse.com/2016/01/kim-ki-duks-moebius/
The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He writes in Global South Colloquy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org