Real Fiction (2000)

Review first published by Movie Gazette

While plying his trade in a busy square, a seemingly impassive sketch artist (Ju Jin-mo) is videotaped by a young woman with a camcorder (Kim Jin-ah) as he endures abuse from both his clients and some small-time racketeers. She then leads him to a theatre (emblazoned with posters for a play entitled Another Me), where she contines to film him as he meets his alter ego onstage, and is persuaded to shoot dead this second self and then take violent revenge on all the other people who have ever humiliated him. Over the next hour or so the artist goes on a merciless killing spree, beginning with a rude customer and then working through a list of those whom he regards as his persecutors from the past. Ten (or so) victims later, it is not entirely clear whether these actions are real or imagined, a psychotic’s rampage or an artist’s catharsis, righteous punishment or the ultimate act of bullying.

Shooting on Real Fiction began at one o’clock one afternoon in Seoul, and ended at twenty past four. No retakes, no corrections, just months of preparations and rehearsals, followed by 200 minutes of raw footage (from ten 35mm cameras and two digital cameras) shot in real time, and then edited down to an 82-minute feature. Like Mike Figgis’ Timecode made in the same year, Real Fiction is a bold experiment in isochronous filmmaking – and while it lacks the kind of rich visual aestheticism found in other Kim Ki-duk films like The Isle or Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… Spring, the sheer variety of its locations and moods makes it hard to believe its period of production was so absurdly short. This concentrated immediacy lends an unusual degree of realism to events, and yet, in keeping with the paradox in his film’s title, Kim Ki-duk goes out of his way to undermine his real-time vérité with an array of alienation effects and surrealistic flourishes – culminating in the director himself calling ‘Cut!’ and rushing onto the set at the film’s end, to the applause of cast and crew.

The artist central to Real Fiction is repeatedly criticised by his clients for making them look ugly. Yet his sketches, far from being grotesque caricatures, are entirely true to his subjects, exposing unpleasant realities about them that they would prefer remain hidden. Similarly, when he finds himself the subject of another artist’s work, he is forced to confront the darker, uglier side of himself that he has carefully concealed – his feelings of murderous hatred and implacable rage. And so Real Fiction explores art (both paintings and film) as a fictive arena where repressed emotions, base instincts, violent fantasies and awkward truths can be staged and worked through – perhaps without any real harm to others.

That writer/director Kim Ki-duk himself spent two years painting on the streets of Montpellier, and was also regularly bullied while in the Marines, suggests that Real Fiction serves as a dramatic projection not just of his protagonist’s, but of his own, fantasies and anxieties about revenge. Unlike the black-and-white morality so often seen in revenge flicks, here the targets of the artist’s vendetta are portrayed variously as sympathetic, misunderstood, guilty of only the most paltry offences, or themselves (as much as their killer) the victims of humiliation, so that the uncontrollable desire to retaliate against them seems pathetic rather than laudable – as ugly a personal characteristic as any scar. This is what the girl with the camcorder, and Kim (with his twelve assistant directors and 150 production aides), have captured – the warts-and-all portrait of an artist as an angry young man. It may not be pretty, but as a fiction it rings painfully true.

Anton Bitel