The very form of the title Human, Space, Time and Human (Inkan, gongkan, sikan grigo inkan) evokes Kim Ki-duk‘s Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter… and Spring (2003), and promises a similarly cyclical view of human experience. This time, however, life unfolds not on and around a monastery floating on a remote lake, but on a shabby cruise liner. On board this ship of fools for what is meant to be a week’s touristic voyage are a pair of hopeful newlyweds (Mina Fujii,Joe Odagiri), a Senator (Lee Sung-jae) and his son (Jang Keun-suk), a gangster (Ryoo Seung-bum) and his thugs, the captain (Sung Ki-youn) and his crew, several groups of men and women, and a mysterious old man (Ahn Sung-ki) who devotes himself with constant purpose to a set of strange tasks that sow the seeds for the continuity of this disastrous round trip.
The vessel’s status as a decommissioned warship, with its disused cannons (and some other weapons) still on board, points to a tradition of violence – and that violence will soon resurface as the passengers’ hunger (for money, for sex, for power and ultimately for food) will set them against one another in a battle royale for survival, even as the ship itself takes off from the open sea into the sky, drifting free of any supplies or indeed anchoring civilisation. While everyone else squabbles pathetically over crumbs, the old man – one of those mute characters found in most of writer/director Kim’s films – alone labours and recycles and sacrifices with a view to creating a garden to feed the long-term future rather than mere short-term desires.
Pregnant after being gang-raped, the bride realises that the old man regards her as the Eve of this new floating world, and that all his efforts are in the service of keeping her and the unborn child alive, no matter what might happen to the others in the dog-eat-dog divisions (of oppression, brutality, murder and cannibalism) into which everyone is rapidly degenerating. The bride expressly wonders (no doubt mirroring the thoughts of the audience) if her benign, silent provider might in fact be God, and it is indeed difficult not to read the film’s parable in religious – as well, of course, as political and anthropological – terms, as the eerily airborne vessel becomes both unruly Ark and isolated Eden. This is on-the-nose allegory, even agit-prop, with all the characters reduced to symbols and archetypes. The escalating violence is as casually grounded in grubby realism as the wider, god’s-eye-view imagery takes off in surreal flights of fancy. Its final panoramic vision recalls the ending both of Kim’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, and of his earlier The Isle (2000), but these moments of sublimity are offset by the crude characterisation and ugly filmmaking.
Rough, repetitive and utterly unsubtle, this is an unpleasant and alienating depiction of humanity as rarely if ever elevated beyond its most bestial appetites, and seldom drifting beyond its raw selfishness towards acts of self-sacrifice in the collective interest. It is a hard film to love, but there is something admirable about the uncompromising, unflinching way that it shows the seeds of hope and of self-destruction being sown together, ad infinitum.
© Anton Bitel