Piece first published in the programme for the London Korean Film Festival 2014
Kim Ki-duk is an outsider in his own native land. Born in 1960 in North Gyeongsang Province’s mountainous Bonghwa County, he dropped out of agricultural training school in his teens, and took work in various factories – as well as serving five tough years in the Marines. In 1990 he went to France to study art, financing his sojourn there by working on the streets as a portrait painter – a métier that would feature prominently in his second, Paris-set film Wild Animals (1996) and in his real-time semi-autobiographical revenge fantasy Real Fiction (2000). Having found his cinephilia in France, Kim returned to Korea in 1993, and began gaining notice for his screenplays. His low-budget 1996 directorial debut Crocodile was released domestically to considerable critical acclaim – although now, some 19 features later, that position has rather changed.
Overseas, Kim has been feted as Best Director in Berlin for Samaritan Girl (2004), and in Venice for 3-Iron (2004). His Arirang (2011) won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, and his Pietà (2012) won the Golden Lion at Venice – making it the first Korean title ever to win Best Film at one of the ‘top three’ international festivals.
Yet here’s the paradox: though Kim is one of Korea’s best known film ambassadors abroad, drawing critical approval and even box office, he has become a veritable pariah at home, where he receives little press coverage, and where his films, when they are released at all, barely register with Korean cinemagoers. Perhaps this is because of the autodidact filmmaker’s lack of formal education – in a country where academic credentials are closely tied in with status and recognition. Perhaps it is because of abrasive public comments that he has made about other Korean filmmakers (and their audiences). Perhaps it is his films’ uneasy marriage of cruel human brutality to an abstract metaphysical poetic. Or perhaps it is because his Korean portraits, like those of the painter in Real Fiction, expose ugly, unpleasant realities that the subjects would prefer remain hidden. One thing is certain, though: the films of this outsider artist have, from the very outset, been populated with figures who themselves occupy margins of different kinds, giving expression to that deeply ingrained sense of alienation and injustice that Koreans call han.
This starts with his first film Crocodile, whose homeless, rape-happy antihero (played by soon-to-be Kim regular Jo Jae-hyeon) has made an enemy of the rest of the world, and of himself. Similar hardmen-protagonists – bullying yet bullied – feature in Kim’s Bad Guy (2001) and Pietà, while his female characters are often seeking escape from marital suffocation or betrayal (3-Iron; Breath, 2007; Moebius), or turn in desperation to prostitution (Birdcage Inn; Bad Guy; Samaritan Girl), or or even try to flee their own identity (Time). Kim regularly marks his characters’ extreme isolation by showing them on the run (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring; 3-Iron), on death row (Bad Guy; Breath; Dream) or even on floating homes (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring; The Bow) – and a more general desire for rebellion and revenge against (societal) wrongs can be discerned in Real Fiction, The Coast Guard (2002), Arirang (2011) and Kim’s newest film One on One (2014). Of course, there is arguably no edge more frayed in Korean society than the borders, physical and cultural, left by unresolved conflict between North and South, and Kim duly explores these too in Address Unknown (2001), The Coast Guard, and his screenplay for Juhn Jae-hong’s Poongsan (2011).
The marginalised, impotent status of Kim’s characters is sometimes expressed through their very voicelessness – something of a signature in the director’s oeuvre, with incidental appeal to non-Korean audiences. So The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001), 3-Iron and The Bow (2005) all feature principal players who, though not strictly incapable of speech, remain mostly if not entirely mute onscreen, while in Breath the prisoner Jang Jin (played by Chinese actor Chang Chen) has been rendered dumb by a throat injury. Meanwhile, the two main characters in Dream (2008) – one Korean, the other Japanese – speak to one another in their respective, mutually unintelligible languages – and Moebius (2013) unfolds its twisted Freudian psychodrama cum Buddhist parable without any dialogue at all. These characters are as unheard as, in Korea, Kim’s films have been unseen – and yet they find rich expression through other means.
There are other threads that one could trace through Kim’s work – his love of circular narratives and karmic trajectories, his use of religious allegory, his way with striking final images – all of which bind his collected works together with a vision that, though certainly challenging, is also remarkably coherent.