Crocodile (1996)

Review first published by Little White Lies

Kim Ki-duk is always courting controversy. His films (including The Isle, Bad Guy, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring and 3-Iron) are often violent, cruel and shocking, and have even been accused of misogyny; yet they also typically manifest a visual poetry and a spiritual resonance that offset their unpleasant characters and uncomfortable themes.

In 2011, after a self-imposed three-year exile from the screen, he returned with Arirang, an experimental, schizo-narcisissistic autobiopic in which he presented himself – or more strictly one of his selves – ultimately executing violent fictive vengeance against the real filmmakers whom he perceives to have betrayed him. If its rather negative critical reception suggests that Arirang was not quite the comeback that Kim wanted, its follow-up Pietà – his 18th feature – has just won the Golden Lion at Venice, although again not without controversy, having allegedly beaten PT Anderson’s The Master to the prize on a technicality (and to the unguarded displeasure of several members of the jury).

So it is interesting to go back to Kim’s 1996 debut feature Crocodile (aka A-go), now being released for the first time in the UK (by Terracotta, in a double-DVD set with Arirang), and to see just how early the controversial materials set in. The titular antihero – played by Jo Jae-hyeon, who would go on to become a regular in Kim’s films – is presumably so-called for the amphibious ease with which he passes between shore and water, but he also shares the decidedly predatory nature of his namesake.

Homeless, he lives with the boy Yang-byul (Ahn Jae-hong) and the older ‘Grandpa’ (Jeon Moo-song) alongside the Han river, under a bridge that is a popular suicide spot. Whenever someone leaps from the bridge at night, Crocodile dives in after them, but he first leaves them time to flail about and die, as he is more interested in stealing their wallets than saving their skins.

Peddling gum with Yang-byul in Seoul’s streets, Crocodile intervenes when a young woman is molested and beaten – but he then cannot resist the impulse to assault her himself, until yet another person intervenes. Later that evening Crocodile will rescue the suicidal Hyun-jung (Woo Yun-gyeong) from the river, resuscitating her – only to rape her. Hyun-jung, however, hangs around, and as time passes, the four form something like a family unit, with Crocodile’s gruff brutality gradually being tempered by his unrequited feelings for the lovelorn, victimised woman. In the end, after a sequence of increasingly violent incidents, Crocodile will hitch himself to Hyun-jung for eternity in a grim sub-aquatic parody of domestic bliss.

Appetitive and aggressive, the main character lays the template for a number of Korean ‘bad guy’ brutes featuring not just in Kim’s own subsequent films, but also many other modern and popular Korean titles. Kim has chosen a protagonist who is very hard to like, but then places him in a rapacious environment of con artists, thugs, exploitative businessmen, corrupt cops and hired killers, where Crocodile himself is seen to be a marginalised, unloved figure at the very bottom of the food chain, and all too aware of his “shitty destiny”.

Often prey or witness to Crocodile’s violent depravities, Yang-byul repeatedly attempts to prevent his ‘brother’ committing further outrages, first slicing Crocodile’s penis with a penknife, and then sabotaging his moped – but for all the bruises and scars that Crocodile acquires throughout the film, he seems an almost cartoonishly indestructible monster. Yet as the arrival of Hyun-jung gradually mellows Crocodile, even Yang-byul must conclude: “There’s something wrong with him – he’s being good.”

There are perhaps a few too many digressions in Crocodile, including a particular bizarre sideplot in which Grandpa goes to extreme lengths to keep a broken coffee machine running – while other, more important elements, like the backstory of Hyun-jung’s troubled relationship with her ex Chun-ho, are presented in an elliptical manner that seems more rushed than artful. Yet Crocodile remains a shocking depiction of day-to-day struggles in a dog-eat-dog world. It also comes with one of those hauntingly beautiful endings for which Kim has since become rightly famous.

Anton Bitel