“People have asked me if I am a ‘moral’ person. I usually reply that I am not. I am not perfect. But I am a person who is not afraid to show the dark and poor sides of Korean society. This is my moral cause. I could make much cleaner films than my previous projects, but I am afraid I might be blamed for doing something “normal.” At the same time, I am afraid that I will not have the creativity to make mainstream films in the future because of my background with controversial subjects.”
– Kim Ki-duk in Korean Cinema Today (Oct. 2012: Vol. 14)
For Kim Ki-Duk, life has been about proving himself. Born December 20, 1960 in Bonghwa, Gyeongsang Province, South Korea, his childhood was much different compared to most kids his age. In a society that greatly values education, Kim dropped out of middle-school when he was 15 to work at an industrial factory until he was old enough to join the Marines in his 20s.
Between 1990 and 1993, Kim studied art and lived in Paris, before returning to South Korea to make his first feature in 1996, entitled Crocodile. Since then, Kim has written and directed 20 features, also producing the directing debut of his former assistant directors, with several of them often surpassing his own films in critical and commercial success. But for Kim, he learned early on that life was always going to be an uphill battle — dedicating himself to constantly working, wondering whether or not Korean audiences watch his work.
He, mirroring much of his characters, can be seen as outcast in the Korean film industry. Not one to stay quiet, Kim has a history of actively criticizing Korean society, as well as the film industry, through his films or as himself. His rebellious persona has gotten him into trouble with the public in the past, especially in live interviews, but also purposefully recuses himself heavily from the spotlight when needed.
Lately the man’s been much better with critics and the press, but they still need convincing when it comes to his movies. Kim understands that some see his films as interesting, sharp critiques of culture and societal taboos, while others find his work detestable, misogynistic, and ultimately unfit for local audiences.
Overseas, however, he has been praised as one-of-a-kind auteur, winning awards in prestigious festivals such as Venice and Cannes. And for Kim, that’s more than enough motivation to keep going.
What makes his films so controversial? And why should we care?
For starters, his characters aren’t model citizens, and purposefully so. They often don’t work in conventional jobs, mainly doing illegal, unethical, and immoral deeds to get by — and not in a charming way. Many are outcasts, homeless, vagrants, or simply lost, fueled by misery as they struggle to find belonging even in the familiar or in despicable spaces.
An audience may find it tough to identify with these characters, but their journey as told by Kim is at the very least fascinating. His background in art has made Kim a capable visual storyteller, especially when he shoots on location. He might toot his own horn a bit much at times, but his strongest films are evidence of his talents. Not all his features are impeccably structured and told, Sdark themes make certain titles difficult recommendations.
However, Kim’s best films say exactly what they need to in incredibly moving and profound ways, despite having a tough scene or two to endure. But as Kim would want, his film’s best audiences just decide for themselves. In case you’ve never seen anything from South Korea’s erstwhile “bad boy” filmmaker, here are some essential titles as starting points.
1. Bad Guy (2001)
Han-ki (Jo Jae-hyeon) is a mute pimp from Seoul’s red-light district. While in the city, he gets attracted to a college girl named Sun-hwa (Won Seo). To show his affection, he forces a kiss on her, resulting in Han-ki not only getting beaten in public by some soldiers, but Sun-hwa spitting on him. Han-ki retaliates by ensnaring her as one of his prostitutes through faking a theft that puts Sun-hwa in debt. As Sun-hwa becomes more corrupt and degraded in her work, Han-ki is troubled by rivals on the street while dealing with his feelings for Sun-hwa.
Bad Guy was Kim’s first commercially successful film in South Korea after previously striking big with European audiences. There are scenes here that echo much of his earlier films, down to the framing within certain scenarios. For most of the film, Han-ki and Sun-hwa barely interact for lengthy periods, but Han-ki watching Sun-hwa through the glass screen represents an outcast looking into something incredibly familiar through a barrier that’s representative of the societal barrier that Han-ki still implements.
There’s a similar scene in Wild Animals, also used to show how worlds apart two people can be despite occupying the same space. While the film does focus on Sun-hwa’s character, it’s more of an exploration of Han-ki and his place in society. How does one sympathize with such a person? Other films would either punish or redeem Han-ki’s character, but what Kim does instead is sad, reflective, and ultimately perfect through the eyes of this mute brute.
2. 3-Iron (2004)
This New Wave essential is a mood piece about a young man named Tae-suk (Jae Hee) who breaks and enters into homes that have been empty for days. Instead of robbing the houses, he takes care of the homes by completing chores and providing minor maintenance. When he enters a seemingly empty home to find abused housewife Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), he immediately leaves when realizing he’s been caught. But unable to forget Sun-hwa’s situation, Tae-suk returns and beats the abusive husband for his actions. But as Tae-suk leaves for a second time, Sun-hwa decides to join him.
While this 2004 film is far from his debut film (this is the eleventh he made), 3-Iron is the most accessible, and arguably Kim’ss best. Featuring the silent protagonist once again, Tae-suk doesn’t say a single word throughout this film, but through Kim’s direction and Jae Hee’s performance, audiences understand Tae-suk’s thoughts and emotional state. Even if his actions are baffling, audiences can see why Sun-hwa joins him: he’s a criminal with a heart of gold. His critique against society can be mirrored in the homes and their owners they encounter during their stays, on top of how others perceive their actions.
Even if the message of the film is pretty explicit, it’s still pretty poignant, ultimately showing how two lost people can finally find a sense (and place) of belonging. His films aren’t ideal date movies, but 3-Iron would actually fit the bill, even when a film like Time deals explicitly with relationships.
3. Pieta (2012)
Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a feared loan shark with a reputation in his industrial neighborhood for being cruel and unforgiving, constantly resorting to violence clients don’t pay. When an elderly woman name Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) appears and claims to be his long lost mother, Gang-do is even more unforgiving. But taken aback by her persistent and tenacious nature, Gang-do reconsiders his position about the woman and opens up to her.
Pieta is a recent feature by the filmmaker to earn him universal praise. In South Korea, it was recognized and submitted as the country’s entry to the 85th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. When it played at Venice it took the highest honor of Golden Lion, as well as three more awards, even the award voted by younger audiences.
While being primarily a drama, there are elements of the revenge thriller that many of his contemporaries produce for local and foreign audiences, but Kim adds his own twist by turning the pure act of forgiveness into something incredibly cold. With a brave performance by Jo Min-soo as the mother, Kim doesn’t aim for gut reactions like other Korean genre filmmakers. He wants the film to be felt and contemplated as the credits quietly scroll upwards over the haunting few minutes being painted onscreen.
4. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)
Broken into five chapters, this film tells the life of a Buddhist monk from childhood to adulthood, as he discovers life, lust, betrayal, death, and redemption on a small, serene and majestic lake house. More could be described in the synopsis, but this is a film that should be viewed going in knowing absolutely nothing.
Arguably Kim’s best-looking feature, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring uses the seasons explicitly a metaphor for life, told in affecting poignancy. Each season looks noticeably different from the last, with the lake house majestically framed in wide landscape. Kim’s noticeably experiments with structure here, using chapters to tell a contained story each moment, but tied to a larger narrative. The story does move in one direction chronologically, but the overall film’s structure reflects something much more spiritual, specifically Buddhist when considering the cyclical, repetitive nature of life.
On paper, it reads like a something written by a first-year film student, but Kim had a specific vision for its execution. His crew believed in this vision, one they would meet throughout the year as Kim would wait for the seasons to match the scenes they were filming. That kind of dedication as a visual storyteller is something you don’t see much in Hollywood especially when considering that other filmmakers would’ve probably used a soundstage.
Of all his films, I personally recommend this one. Despite the ingenious simplicity in the way the film executes the story and narrative, the experience is what lingers on, transcending our basic connection to the film to something much more universal.
5. Time (2008)
Time has quite the premise: Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) and Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeaon) are a couple in modern day Seoul who are hitting a bump in their relationship. Seh-hee is convinced that Ji-woo is tired of her body and face, even so as testing him during sex on night. Then one day, Ji-woo finds that Seh-hee has completely disappeared. However, Seh-hee’s disappearance is due to the fact that she wishes to undergo plastic surgery to change her face completely, planning to test Ji-woo’s commitment to her by judging his reaction to her new appearance as this new woman (Sung Hyun-ha).
Time is actually not as brutal as his other filmography, but it does showcase Kim’s techniques and his critiques. He repeats shots, compositions, and locations as a way to comment on the effects that repetition, familiarity, and time will have on a relationship. On top of being lighter, there are some genuinely funny moments, and the while film is a straightforward drama, Kim is able to lighten certain scenes, allowing the audience and character to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
At times, when the character’s behavior is heightened to the point of absurdity, Kim dials it back to show Ji-woo and Seh-hee’s flaws in semi-realistic fashion, but they’re much more relatable to audiences than the characters in something like Bad Guy. While their personality and relationship might evolve into something less than desired, the ending to Time reminds audiences that despite the lighter experience, it’s still every bit a work by Kim.