The Bow (활, Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

The bowKim Ki-duk is not known for his conventional approach to morality but even so his 12th feature, The Bow (활, Hwal), takes things to a whole new level of uncomfortable complexity. While nowhere near as extreme as some of Kim’s other work, The Bow takes the form of a fable as an old man and a young girl remain locked inside a mutually dependent relationship which, one way to another, is about to change forever.

The old man owns a fishing boat on which he lives with a young girl most assume to be his granddaughter. This theory is quickly disproved by the old man’s obsession with his wall calendar on which he excitedly crosses of the dates, making a note of how many there are left until the circled day on which is marked the word “wedding”. Whose wedding, one is apt to ask but the obvious answer is the correct one. The old man plans to marry the young girl on her 17th birthday. Having “found” her ten years ago, he’s been patiently raising her and now awaits his reward. It’s not clear if he has actually asked the girl, who seems to look to him as a paternal rather than romantic figure, but at any rate the relationship between them seems fairly solid at this point.

That is until one fateful day a young and handsome student boards the boat and immediately captures the girl’s attention. Having been cooped up here for ten a whole years seeing no one other than the old man and the guys who come to fish, the girl is instantly smitten – just like Miranda laying eyes on Ferdinand for the very first time. The old man is worried – is he about to lose his prize bride to a young buck? With the fateful day approaching, the girl becomes increasingly cold and rebellious towards her father/husband-to-be, though which direction she will eventually choose is anyone’s guess.

The old man is very protective of his charge, taking out his bow and arrow when the other guys on the boat try it on (and some take the chase to quite unpleasant places) but perhaps that’s more about defending his property from spoilage than it is about saving a defenceless girl from a traumatic situation. Neither the girl nor the old man speak very much, occasionally one whispers to the other who then passes the message on via another whisper to whomever it was intended for. Perhaps they genuinely have no need for talking but at any rate the girl never voices any objections to her life on the boat and the only signs of rejection given are a sullen look, rebellious courting of the customers and finally a good old fashioned slap to the face.

The bow of the title is both a weapon and a musical instrument when the string is tightened over a drum rather than across an arrow. The artist and the warrior are truly two sides of the same coin, swapping drums for arrows as the occasion calls. The old man, who is more or less cast as the protagonist of the tale meeting a final swan song, has all these qualities. A rough sea hand, he lives a life of isolation alone with the girl on a boat in the middle of the sea, the music their only form of entertainment. As well as the fishing business, the man also tells the fortunes of his customers by firing arrows at a picture of a Buddhist deity while the girl rides a swing in front. The boat itself is a world entire, with its own rules and rituals – all things are contained inside of it, violence mixed with beauty and love mixed with fear.

It’s ironic in one sense that the girl’s would be rescuer is another man with less prurient designs, but still designs all the same, on her as a woman. That she’s apparently lived on this boat for ten years with people coming and going all the time and with no great attempts to maintain a convenient excuse is shocking in itself. Whether the relationship between the old man is entirely genuine or born of a kind of Stockholm syndrome is a matter for debate, but Kim opts not to fully explore the uncomfortable elements of this unusual situation in favour of casting the old man as a kind of love fool.

Though actually featuring much more dialogue than the average Kim film, The Bow is at heart a symbolic exercise which becomes a complex and extended Buddhist metaphor. Playing out like a boat bound The Tempest, the old man becomes Prospero with a bow rather than a staff and as a prophet rather than a magician. The student, like Ferdinand, shatters their peace by bringing the outside world into their idyll with all of its pleasures and complications. The old man faces a choice, burn his books and abandon his kingdom or keep his daughter/wife-to-be fearful enough to stay with him rather than the young man who offers her, literally, the world, which she has never known. Kim descends into a surrealist frenzy as the finale approaches, culminating either in a beyond the grave consummation of true love or a spiritual rape, depending on your point of view. Whichever you choose, The Bow is both a complex and poetic exploration of human relationships but one that proves unpalatable and, ultimately, hollow.


Original English language trailer (dialogue free, English text)

3-Iron (빈집, Kim Ki-duk, 2004)

3-ironYou wouldn’t think it wise but apparently some people are so trusting that they don’t think twice about recording a new answerphone message to let potential callers know that they’ll be away for a while. On the face of things, they’re lucky that the guy who’ll be making use of this valuable information is a young drifter without a place of his own who’s willing to pay his keep by doing some household chores or fixing that random thing that’s been broken for ages but you never get round to seeing to. So what if he likes to take a selfie with your family photos before he goes, he left the place nicer than he found it and you probably won’t even know he was there.

Player 2 joins the young man (credited as Tae-suk but unnamed in the film) when he stays at an upscale mansion which turns out to be “haunted” by the still living but damaged figure of a battered wife. Tae-suk hurriedly leaves once discovered, but later thinks over his encounter with the sad seeming lady and decides to return. After an altercation with her violent husband, Sun-hwa leaves with Tae-suk and the pair sneak into various other “empty” homes together. After one particular dwelling reveals a nasty surprise the two bring themselves to the attention of the police who threaten to end their young love story before it’s hardly begun.

Like much of Kim’s work, 3-Iron (빈집, Bin-jip) is near silent and neither of the two protagonists speak one word to each other until final scene of the film. Tae-suk, in particular, seems to have an obsession with being invisible – hiding in blindspots and always making sure to tidy up after himself so well that no trace of his presence remains. Sliding into these mini universes, he seems oddly interested in their inhabitants as he gazes at their photographs and admires the decor. Despite his need to disappear, he builds connections with absent people even going so far as to take a photo with a photo of them, artificially generating some sort of kinship where there is none.

If Tae-suk is haunting the bourgeoisie, Sun-hwa is both spectre and spectee as she moves silently around her golden cage of a spacious villa like a frightened mouse locked inside the elephant house. Evidently further along the stealth game than Tae-suk has been able to progress, her discovery of him leads to a feeling of defeat. Yet, after reconsideration, he recognises a fellow lost soul and so returns to rescue her from her oppressive ogre of a husband by using his weapon of choice against him. The 3-Iron golf club is not only a symbol of the husband’s middle class pretensions, but its relative lack of wear also points to the lack of respect he reserves for his toys – even extending so far as his wife whom he also seems to regard as an “inautonomous” appendage to his image much like the golf club itself.

Kim ends the film with a caption to the effect that it’s hard to tell if the world we live in is reality or a dream. With the continued silence of the film’s protagonist, bizarre scenario of “borrowed” lives, and general surrealism, Kim creates an etherial atmosphere filled with heightened, everyday strangeness. This could be a ghost story – literally, or figuratively, as our haunted protagonists continue their visitations on the living, or a love story, or even an absurd comedy. Tae-suk and Sun-wha exchange roles, alternately comforting or rescuing one another before, perhaps, becoming one at the film’s conclusion. A strange, romantic fairytale, 3-Iron is Kim in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood though he’s careful to remind us that the world outside of this charming bubble is filled with violence, cruelty, and chaos.


3-Iron is available in the UK from Studiocanal and from Sony Pictures Classics in the US though the R3 Korean disc also includes English subtitles.

US release trailer:

One on One (UK Anime Network Review)

9ae7eea7-3b8a-4212-96ca-023eb8b5cdd5wallpaper1Review of Kim Ki-duk’s latest from the London Korean Film Festival up at UK Anime Network.


Kim Ki-duk is back with another frankly baffling state of the nation style assault on contemporary Korean values. In contrast with much of his other work, One On One is much more dependent on plot and dialogue and has a much more straight forward yet distant shooting style than the poetic and painterly scenes we often see from him. Like his other films however, it employs shocking episodes of violence to expose some of society’s festering wounds though perhaps this time it’s with the eyes of a curious anthropologist rather than an embittered social investigator.

This oddly symmetrical tale begins with the shockingly matter of fact murder of a young schoolgirl by a gang of seven masked aggressors. Following this seemingly senseless crime another group of seven, this time a group of vigilantes brought together by a desire for some kind of personal vengeance against society, have taken it upon themselves to avenge this killing by kidnapping each of the seven perpetrators and torturing them until they confess and give some kind of information regarding the true nature of the crime. In another duality, the “villains” are all well to do, successful underlings whereas the “vigilantes” are generally working-class people who’ve lost out in the current economic climate and in some cases are living in dire poverty through no fault of their own. The villains offer several different reactions or explanations for their involvement in such a heinous crime varying from “I was just following orders” or “it was for the common good” to “what does it matter, I have status and can do as I please” but at the end of the day those on both sides will have to realise that the lines between good and bad are much more fluid than most people would like to think and that eventually you will have to decide for yourself not just where you stand but who it is you really are.

One on One often feels like a slightly underbaked pudding, the flavour is good (mostly) but it’s gone a bit soggy in the middle. The symmetrical nature of the two sets of seven is interesting as is the direct mirroring of their social statuses but somehow the ideas don’t quite feel developed enough and even end up feeling a little too neat or obvious. The elite group who murdered the school girl in the beginning are all successful people with seemingly no particular worries in their lives other than being caught up in a hierarchical system and unable to climb the ladder fast enough. When one of the men whose explanation is simply that this isn’t his fault, he was only following orders and whoever gave the order is to blame is reminded that one day he may be the one giving the orders he seems to regard it simply as the natural order of things. He and some of the others seem to have an unshakeable faith that they would not have been asked to do this (and presumably other “crimes” too) had it not been of vital importance for the survival of the Republic of South Korea. Where this “faith” comes from remains unclear, though it offers the slim justification of the fanatic for the senseless murder of a teenage girl. Some of these men wanted to get ahead and simply didn’t care what they had to do to get there, but others at least thought their actions had  a noble purpose no matter how terrifyingly awful the task they’ve been assigned.

The group of vigilantes by contrast are mostly those who’ve been disadvantaged by the current climate of Korean society. One is living on instant ramen, which as is pointed out by the group’s leader is a staple food for the poor but simply “a snack” for the rich, whilst trying to save money for his wife’s medical treatment and fend off various loan sharks. Another is living outside his old tenement building in a tent with his mother who seems to be suffering with dementia because they have nowhere else to go. The young men are angry that even if they’ve done everything right – got a degree, been abroad, learned English, they still can’t get those steady white collar jobs and a leg up into the middle classes like they were always promised. The one aberration in the group is its only female whose anger stems from being involved in an abusive relationship which she nevertheless does not seem keen to end. It isn’t difficult to see where their anger stems from and for most of them the vigilante activities are a way of taking a personal revenge against society as a whole by taking these entitled, well connected “thugs” down a peg or two and trying to make them realise the true nature of their societal roles.

However, things start to fall apart towards the end where Kim allows his message to become a little too muddy. There are good bad guys and bad good guys, nobody’s perfect and perhaps nobody even wants to be – can you really build a society when everyone has completely lost sight of any kind of human compassion? At one point some of the vigilantes attempt to make the best of their situation by exclaiming “ah, at least we aren’t in North Korea” which just makes you half wonder if North Korea isn’t just a giant government conspiracy designed to maintain the status quo by allowing the lowest members of society to feel good enough about their situation to avoid any revolutionary grumblings from the proletariat. The title card at the end flashes up the following three words “Who Am I?” with no other explanation to whom they might pertain. Like all the best riddles there might be several answers to that multifaceted problem though they may end up saying more about those who answer than those who posed the question.


 

 

Moebius (uk-anime.net review)

pXQzqHE - ImgurKim Ki-duk’s latest reviewed at uk-anime.net.


A Moebius strip is a twisted loop with no beginning and no end. No matter where you start your journey, you could pass the same point many times without ever crossing a boundary. It this inexorable and infinite cycle to which Korean auteur and professional cage rattler Kim Ki-duk now turns his unfaltering gaze as the ancient wheel of sex, death and violence trundles on untroubled by our modern day pretences of a more enlightened society. Completely dialogue free, Kim presents a contemporary greek tragedy framed as the blackest kind of satire.

Things are not going well in this quietly suburban, middle class household. It’s not even breakfast time but the father has retreated to his study because the mother is already perched on the stairs, a large refilled glass of red wine in hand and all while the bemused teenage son looks on disinterestedly. This is a normal morning, nothing has changed very recently. Things are about to change though – quite drastically. Finally at the end of her tether and filled with a Medea-like fury the mother decides to put an end to her husband’s philandering days by means of a kitchen knife. She is extremely drunk and half crazed so her husband easily disarms her at which point she comes up with another idea – if she can’t hurt her husband himself, she can cause him pain by proxy and takes her knife to her unsuspecting son’s room. Literally emasculated by his mother, the young son must then face difficult questions regarding the nature of his masculinity, particularly as it appears to others. His father in turn must cope both with the guilt of his own sins being visited on his son as well as that of his own behaviour as a father, husband and finally a man. Never one for easy answers, Kim Ki-duk’s examination of modern day Korean society continues apace but its implications are far more wide reaching.

Though Kim is firmly focussed on his native Korea, the questions he presents are as old as the hills and common to almost every culture (at least to those that also male dominated). It’s not the first Korean film where the successful father is having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter, or the first where the wife’s humiliation spills over into violence but the nature of her revenge is so specific, and perhaps bizarre, that it brings its own particular line of discourse. The first question is one of traditional masculinity and how that is defined between men. The son seems to feel emasculated and looks for different ways to explore his manhood but is at pains that no one should discover the nature of his injury. Though he approaches the woman who had been his father’s mistress (played by the same actress who plays the mother), he backs off when she reaches for his genitals. Later, he makes an attempt to step in when she’s being hassled by a gang of dangerous looking youths but quickly subjugates himself to them and, when they do actually gang rape her, pretends to join in rather than stand up to them or have them think he is less than a man.

The fact the object of his adolescent lust is both his father’s mistress and looks eerily like a younger version of his mother is another ancient problem where, as they say, everyman kills his father and beds his mother. The father’s first reaction to his son’s predicament is to look for ways someone without a penis might experience orgasm – the answer he comes up with also speaks volumes and points to another of Kim’s ideas of circularity, that pain and pleasure aren’t so much linear poles but a circular continuum where both can exist equally at the same time as a sort of self feeding vortex. The second idea he has is a penis transplant, and as the boy’s is no longer available he makes the ultimate decision to sacrifice his own source of pleasure in favour of his son’s. Unfortunately, it comes with some sort of homing device which means it only works with the mother (perhaps her ultimate revenge). The relationship between father and son changes again as they become rivals in an incestuous love triangle only now it is the father who has become impotent and the son, literally, the man of the house.

If you think this all sounds a bit ridiculous (is a penis transplant even possible?) you aren’t wrong, and Kim Ki-duk knows too. Odd as it might sound, Moebius is a comedy, even if a macabre one. Sexual violence, incest, penis theft – not traditional comedic ingredients it has to be said but Kim Ki-duk’s very definitely of the it’s better to laugh than cry school of thought and the sheer scale of Kim’s vision gives the entire project the sort of absurd grandiosity that makes it very difficult not to find humour even the bleakest of situations. Kim isn’t proposing any answers here so much as offering a series of (critical) observations of human nature. The world isn’t going to change just as it hasn’t changed since Euripides first started telling stories of people driven to the edge of madness. We’re all walking on a Moebius strip, repeating the cycle endlessly completely unaware that, at some point, we began walking on the other side. Like the best Greek tragedies, Moebius is has a feeling of inevitability driven by the most primal of emotions. Once again Kim proves he’s not afraid to look deep into the dark heart of human nature and, though not for the faint hearted, Moebius is one of his most accomplished films to date.