info I contact
editorial schedule
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive



The ferocious eye of Kim Ki-duk

Mike Walsh

Crocodile, director Kim Ki-duk Crocodile, director Kim Ki-duk
In his second year as director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, James Hewison has extended his policy of foregrounding Asian cinema. His stated policy is that “this festival should be a representative or even advocate of the region to which we belong.” It certainly helps that Asia is producing the most interesting films in world cinema at the moment.

Hewison has a particular interest in South Korean cinema, aiming to locate it as “an almost irresistible part” of this year’s festival. He describes Korea as “an incredibly energetic film culture, one that takes risks in style and content, and is unafraid to confront its difficult past.”

This year’s retrospective focusses on Kim Ki-duk, a Korean director whose harsh, violent films will generate considerable controversy. Hewison sees Kim’s films as containing “a raw naivete—almost an innocence—but also anger and anguish expressed in his landscapes usually populated by marginalised characters. Like some of Kitano’s earlier films, there are exclamation marks of brutality that give his work striking, visceral impact alongside poetically constructed beauty.”

Like Japan’s Miike Takeshi, Kim works quickly (with 7 films over the past 6 years) and seeks to attain a transgressive edge by emphasising perverse sexuality combined with explicit violence. Like the Japanese new wave “eros and massacre” directors of the early 1960s, Kim’s films try to imagine what the world looks like when repression reaches an unbearable limit. When desire finally emerges, it does so through rape, murder and mutilation.

On his website (, Kim states his aesthetic credo that “film is created out of a point where reality and fantasy meet.” He claims that his films attempt to access “the borderline where the painfully real and the hopefully imaginative meet.”

The conjunction of pain and reality goes to the heart of Kim’s social critique. His is a world with a pecking order of beatings in which introverted artists and women occupy the bottom rung. Images recur of caged birds, of fish flopping around out of water, of dogs being beaten. The social world is divided utterly and communication is impossible and hardly attempted. In this world, artists are beaten when they show people truthful portraits of themselves.

At their most superficial, the films can often be read as political allegory. Wild Animals (1999) deals with a North Korean and South Korean forging an unlikely friendship; Address Unknown (2001) revolves around the American military presence in Korea; and Birdcage Inn (1998) and Bad Guy (2001) generate their conflicts out of class differences within Korean society.

Underlying these social conflicts, however, is a broader thematic. Kim works with a heavily psychoanalytical model of character. He has a rather hydraulic conception of sexual desire, where repression builds to a point of explosion. Sex is essentially linked to pain and rage in these films. Desire seeks to possess and incorporate its object, and the frustrations in attaining this end only serve to increase its sadistic ferocity.

No failing is so widespread or so dire in Kim’s films as the inability to identify with someone else. His narratives set up these self/other distinctions in order to find hope through collapsing them. The snotty middle-class girl of Birdcage Inn merges into the prostitute who works at her mother’s inn. The artist of Real Fiction takes on the personal history of the actor he encounters at the start of the film. The female protagonist of The Isle appears to dream, but we end up seeing that the dream belongs to the male protagonist. The woman forced into prostitution in Bad Guy stares into a mirror until her image overlaps with that of the pimp who has enslaved her.

As this final example might suggest, Kim aims to shock and offend. His champions invoke surrealism and Artaud in the emphasis on transgression as a means of cutting away bourgeois pretence, of being outside of boundaries. The imaginative leap to identify with others can only come after the embrace of one’s abjection.

After sitting through Bad Guy, however, and being asked to countenance the proposition that brutalisers of women become dependent upon their victims and that being raped and forced into prostitution can put women on a trajectory to emotional growth, you’ve got to wonder whether this is transgressive or just the retelling of a story we already know only too well.

Bad Guy and Real Fiction (2000) are films generated out of post-Laura Mulvey film theory. They both deal with relations of looking as a source of power. A character in Address Unknown asserts that the human eye is the scariest thing. The male protagonist of Bad Guy sets the narrative in motion by staring at a woman and then goes on to watch her sexual degradation from behind a one-way mirror. The male protagonist of Real Fiction can only return himself from the violent fulfilment of his fantasies by smashing in the head of the woman who has been following him with a digital camera.

This points to a reflexivity in Kim’s work that runs alongside his thematic concerns. The obvious analogy for Real Fiction, which was shot in 200 minutes, is Mike Figgis’s Time Code. The most impressive aspect of The Isle is revealed when it is viewed as a technical exercise in which psychologically complex characters are presented without the use of dialogue.

Indeed The Isle, which we saw at last year’s Melbourne festival, is Kim’s strongest film. In paring the drama down to the 2 protagonists, he introduces an economy and an intensity to the film, discarding the stock villains who circle around the few psychologised characters in his films. The Isle is about finding the still point at the centre of life where desire is taken to an end point where it exhausts itself.

Finally, in a year when all of the local festivals were scraping to find Australian films, it is worth posing Korean cinema as a point of comparison. Both countries had feature film industries brought into being and sustained by government intervention. At present, South Korea films have 49% of the domestic box office of their country. The films span a fascinating range from schlock genre pieces (Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine) to national prestige films such as Chihwaeson, to the auteur margins inhabited by Kim. From where I sit, looking at Australia’s 4% of domestic box office, that looks like more and more of an achievement.

Melbourne International Film Festival July 23-Aug 11.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 21

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

Back to top