This is, more or less, the text for my on-stage introduction to Kim Ki-duk’s One On One for the London Korean Film Festival on Sunday, 9 November, 2014.
“Who am I?” Those three words appear in text at the end of Kim Ki-duk’s 20th feature One On One, challenging us to decide where our allegiances lie in the moral, political and spiritual drama that has just been staged – but that use of the first person (who am I?) also suggests a director engaged in self-interrogation. One On One comes with a certain autobiographical element, like Kim’s previous frustrated revenge fantasies Real Fiction (2000), The Coast Guard (2002) and Arirang (2011). But who is Kim Ki-duk?
The Kim Ki-duk we know in the UK is rather different from the one in Korea. Over here, Korean cinema entered the public consciousness in the early Noughties through Tartan’s Asia Extreme label. In fact, Tartan’s focus on shock, horror and excess offered a rather narrow, skewed view of what the national cinema had to offer – but it was a perfect forum for Kim, whose films like The Isle (2000) and Bad Guy (2001) often traded in extreme behaviours and bodily atrocities. Meanwhile his Samaritan Girl (2004) and 3-Iron (2004) were winning him awards at Berlin and Venice. So outside of country, Kim was regarded as one of the key pioneers and posterboys for Korean cinema.
Yet at home, this fiercely independent filmmaker is something of a pariah figure. A high school dropout with no degree, a labourer, a Marine for five years, and a relative latecomer to cinema – this is not the typical résumé of a Korean filmmaker. His occasional barbed comments about the state of the industry and its audience have won him few friends from the Korean film press and public, and various feminist groups label him a misogynist – a reputation that his films don’t exactly dispel. Even as he continues to win awards abroad, many of his titles don’t even get theatrical releases in Korea. In short, Kim is a troublemaker, working on the outer margins of the Korean system, and making dispossessed films about dispossessed people. He is an angry outsider with an axe to grind.
Which brings us to One On One, a film full of angry outsiders with axes to grind. It opens with the cold-blooded murder of a schoolgirl, perpetrated by a group of seven privileged establishment men. A year later, a second group of seven abducts the perpetrators one by one, and coerces them, through torture, to write a full confession. So One On One is a story of crime and punishment, of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. Yet if you are expecting the conventional thrills of a revenge flick, or even of torture porn, you are bound to be disappointed. For Kim is far more interested in the human motivations behind these actions, and in the strange symmetries that relate aggressor to victim. The film has a repetitive, cycling structure in which the seven interrogations are alternated with vignettes from the lives of the characters on both sides. This rigid storytelling structure mirrors the inescapable system in which all 14 parties have become equally trapped. And where many of Kim’s past films – Real Fiction, The Isle, The Bow (2005), Bad Guy, 3-Iron, Breath (2007) and the dialogue-free Moebius (2013) – have featured characters who are as mute as they are marginalised, in One On One he lets everyone have their say, even if at first they might be reluctant to talk.
The seven original murderers show a range of responses to what they have done, from an unrepetant “I was just following orders”, to genuine guilt and shame and a desire to atone. Correspondingly, the seven vigilantes show a similar range of mixed feelings towards their actions, some keen and unquestioning, others more doubtful and self-critical. Although all the vigilantes are victims of abuse, corruption and injustice, for the most part they have no connection to the original crime and its teenaged victim, and they are just seeking vicarious payback for their own troubles. Only their leader Ma (Ma Dong-seok) has a more personal relationship with the original crime, but in a typical manoeuvre by Kim Ki-duk, the leader’s rage-fuelled quest for justice also becomes a spiritual journey towards enlightenment. His own torments and suffering – and those that he metes out to others – are gradually recognised and represented as pessimistic metaphors for the human condition in a cruel world.
One On One is set very much in the here and now, and alludes to international news items from mid-2014 – but there is something abstract and artificial about its events that universalises them. Fakery and illusion are recurrent motifs – not just the fake brand-name watches, handbags and cigarette lighters that several of the avengers purchase to elevate their social status, but also the disguises, props and dressed sets that they use for their operations. Rôle-play is crucial here. Kim suggests that all games of politics and power involve dressing up, and that the wearers of such costumes are in fact interchangeable. All have beneath their showy clothes the same fragile flesh. When our avengers make themselves look like their oppressors, they also risk becoming like them.
These seven vigilantes are engaged in a vain rebellion against a corrupt system which in fact they are perpetuating. Kim dramatises and explores the sense of impotent rage that we all feel in the face of forces and (political) structures that we cannot ultimately change, whether together or alone. While focused on an incomprehensible act of murder and its consequences, this is equally a film about class conflict, domestic abuse, terrorism, or any kind of corruption or tyranny. As the vigilante leader puts it, “Dictators aren’t just for countries.”
Of course, One On One is also, in its way, Kim’s complicated response to the Korean film industry that excludes him, but whose very mistreatment of him helps define who Kim is and what he stands for. In his film Arirang, a psychodrama of extreme solipsism ending in murderous acts of revenge against other filmmakers, Kim was the only actor, playing different versions of himself. It might even sensibly have been called ‘one on one’. Kim doesn’t appear in the actual One On One, but all 14 of its characters reflect conflicting aspects of the self-tormenting director as he struggles against himself to achieve a Buddha-like attitude of forebearance and forgiveness. They also represent parts of all of us.