Arirang (2011)

Review first published by EyeforFilm

“There are many people waiting for your movie. Make a film. Film whatever you want.”

This is the advice which Kim Ki-duk offers himself in a probing, unapologetic interview-cum-character-assassination that the filmmaker conducts with himself (the interviewer distinguishable from the interviewee by having his unruly hair tied back). A third Kim is seen viewing this footage sceptically on a computer and mocking the maudlin interviewee for his disingenuousness, while the role of interviewer will soon be taken over by Kim’s shadow, projected on a wall – and eventually Kim will resort to watching (on video) a critical scene from his best known film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring (2003), in which the isolated protagonist (played by Kim) endures a self-imposed ordeal on a mountain.

Named for a popular Korean folksong – repeatedly sung in the film by Kim – about a mountain called Arirang and ‘self-realisation’, Kim’s elaborate essay is a curiously solipsistic affair in which the Korean recluse fashions himself as one-man cast and crew, and makes his own life, philosophy, filmography and foibles the constant subject.

We see no one else (aside from a cat), and the knocks that keep summoning Kim out of bed and to his front door are just a phantom call to action rather than any real visitor. To brand such a film self-indulgent is both to state the obvious and to understate the less obvious: Kim may indulge himself to the exclusion of anybody else, but it is a self which he openly, almost schizophrenically, struggles either to escape or to transform. “Life,” Kim suggests to his shadow, “is torturing others, getting tortured and torturing oneself – eventually most people wish to settle for self-torture, right?” Call it self-indulgence if you will, but here we are witnessing a man on the rack.

“This could be a documentary, a drama or a fantasy,” Kim declares. Indeed, all three apply. As we watch Kim’s day and nighttime routines, eating and drinking (whether coffee from his self-made espresso machine or hard liquor) in his rural shack, shitting outdoors in the snow for want of a bathroom, and escaping the winter cold by sleeping indoors inside a tent, he explains to his interviewing self why he withdrew from filmmaking three years ago and settled for these hermit-like hardships.

The answer is a complicated mix of creative burn-out, existential crisis following the near death of an actress during the shoot of his last film Dream, and a bitterly unshakable sense of betrayal after several of his long-time collaborating protégés left him to advance their own careers. Arirang itself, shot on a Mark II DSLR camera, is both Kim’s confession of his ‘director’s block’, and his first, not entirely successful attempt in years to break out of it.

Arirang was not the only film from 2011 to deal with a director’s ‘domestic’ politics, theories on cinema, as well as his inability to make more films and his dissection of scripts as yet unrealised, all within a realist framework at odds with the director’s hints at its artifice. Yet Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film concerned a filmmaker using his own medium to expose and resist the repressive regime that had confined him to his home and was about to send him to prison. Arirang, on the other hand, concerns a filmmaker whose problems are personal rather than political and could be resolved whenever he chooses to re-enter the society on which he has so willfully turned his back.

It turns out that more than a mere determination to “film whatever you want” is required to elevate a home video into something that the general public – or even just those of its members who are self-professed fans of Kim’s work – will feel is important or even just engaging. While it is certainly possible to admire the experimentalism of Arirang, it is less easy to like or care about it. The film, with its meandering repetitions and obsessive self-absorption, does little to enhance either the name or reputation of the director who is its main draw. Perhaps Arirang works best as testimony to how far up the mountain Kim has yet to travel before regaining his former peaks – at least, though, he has finally resumed the ascent.

Anton Bitel