Filmmaker Retrospective: The Contemptuous Cinema of Kim Ki-duk

6. Address Unknown (2001)

Address Unknown (2001)

In a small town bordering a United States military base in 1970, three teenagers, Chang-guk (Yang Dong-kun), Eunok (Ban Min-jung), and Jihum (Kim Young-min) struggle to live their lives as the generation after the war that inherits all the “mess” that was buried, abandoned, or left behind. On top of their harsh living conditions, the large foreign presence doesn’t help mend the scars that some adults still hold, not to mention nullify tensions between the Koreans and American soldiers roaming the town.

In selecting films that inform audiences about their creator, an autobiographical film seems like a no brainer. While Kim will insist that his personal life only inspires his characters and stories, Address Unknown is stated by the filmmaker as being semi-autobiographical in depicting his life growing up with his father.

Much like the character Chang-Guk, Kim worked at a factory as a teenager, despite being outcast for not finishing school, which also mirrors Chang-guk’s struggle with the negativity brought on by his mixed ethnicity. There are two characters in this film who also build their own weapons, specifically guns (guns are outlawed in South Korea), only to have them be the instrument of their own downfall.

As much as it is about Kim, he states in a 2002 interview with Korean Cine21 magazine that this film is an exploration into the concept of “Han: a feeling of deep sadness that cannot be forgotten.” He definitely tries to achieve that, which is especially indicative in the closing shots, but also feels slightly rushed in the finale to meet that conclusion. It features all of Kim’s trademarks and the film is beautifully shot despite the town being primarily humid and muddy. It’s not the best work in his filmography, but an interesting snapshot of the filmmaker’s upbringing.


7. Wild Animals (1997)

Wild Animals (1997)

Hong-san (Jang Dong-jik) is a former North Korean soldier who stops by Paris on his way to join the Foreign Legion. There, he’s grifted by a thief and con artist — who isalso an actual artist — named Cheong-hae (Jo Jae-hyeon). After a rough patch with constant feuding, the two eventually develop a genuine friendship. But after the pair join local French mobsters as collectors, bruisers, and assassins, their friendship gets tested, especially after Cheong-hae’s sees Hong-san as more than just a payday.

For three year in his adult life, Kim went to Paris to study art. Part of it was due to familial reasons, but Kim used the opportunity as a time for self-reflection while away from home. While it’s hard to see him behave like the artist in Wild Animals, it’s hard not to see some of the film as inspired by his experiences.

Wild Animals is a peculiar film after seeing many of Kim Ki-duk’s later work, as this happens to feature most of the visual elements that Kim would repeat in later films. First and most common is the presence of an artist. Almost every film Kim has made features some sort art, artist, or artistic process (i.e. painting, sketching, sculpting, editing, etc.).

The motif of fish boats and boat homes starts here, but are found once again in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring, The Isle, and The Bow. He essentially re-stages the handcuff finale of Crocodile in this film, but it feels more than just a repeat, as it means something different in context. It also predated the voyeuristic, peepshow scenario of not only Bad Guy, but in Birdcage Inn, Wild Animals, and Time. And this also features a character building a weapon of their own destruction, much like Kim as a child and the characters in Address Unknown.

Initially, all this may come across as lazy, but it ultimately creates a world outside of South Korea that exists only within Kim’s films, where if Kim reused and mixed certain characters in within his films, they probably won’t feel out of place. It’s also a mini-testament to the lead, Jo Jae-hyeon, who shows up in several titles. He is hardly repeating an old performance, even if the characters are similar. But aside from the self-references, Wild Animals is an effective and satisfying little art house thriller that somewhat feels like Kim’s version of the Hong-Kong crime films starring Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau that were popular before and around that time.


8. Birdcage Inn (1998)

Birdcage Inn (1998)

Whereas Bad Guy was about a pimp, Birdcage Inn centers primarily on a prostitute. The prostitute in question is Jin-a (Lee Ji-eun), who travels to a small beachside town to provide her services to a small room and board run by a family. While the family accepts Jin-a’s in order to survive, the eldest daughter Hye-mi (Lee Hae-eun) wants her gone, even though Jin-a desperately tries to be nice. While Jin-a’s a gorgeous prostitute with a heart of gold, the people that surround her are greedy, hateful, and the extremely lecherous.

Birdcage Inn is a mean little film. The point about the lecherous characters is no joke: with the exception of a couple of extras, mostly every male character that speaks more than a few lines has sex with Jin-a, some through rape. Kim explores several themes in this film — the meaning of family, masculinity, pride, etc. — but the most interesting idea is conflict between the conservative and the more liberal view of female sexuality. The scenes between Jin-a and Hye-mi are the most tense and effective, especially when Hye-mi tries to remove Jin-a from their location.

And as cruel as the males in this film act, Kim makes sure they each receive their due in a way that makes sense. It’s tough to watch and really easy to dislike, taking a controversial stance in the finale. It has a similar ending to Bad Guy in which there’s a twisted sense of hope in through the eyes of the characters, but the viewer knows otherwise. Audiences who find this film interesting should definitely check out his later film Samaritan Girl, which would make an interesting companion piece to this.


9. Rough Cut (Jang Hun, 2008) / Rough Play (Shin Yeon-shick, 2013)

Rough Cut

Rough Cut follows a fictional A-lister named Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-Hwan) who has a reputation of being a hot head, but is even more problematic for his inability to work well with others. When no other co-star wants to work with him after an image-crippling controversy, he crosses paths with a gangster named Gang-pae (So Ji-seob), a cinephile who dreams of acting. Convinced he can make it work, Soo-ta asks Gang-pae to be his co-star on an upcoming gangster pic. Gang-pae agrees with one condition: during the fight sequences, they must go full contact.

Rough Play is somewhat a spiritual sequel to Rough Cut, since it’s also about an egotistical actor. In this film, Oh Young (Joon Lee) is an incredibly talented actor who’s only known for small parts, but has trouble landing leading roles. Problem is, Young getsso invested in the roles that he’s physically endangered co-stars during scenes in which he should be acting. During one of these mishaps, he’s discovered by an agent who guarantees Young a chance to become an A-lister. Young takes the chance and quickly becomes a huge star, but fame reveals some of Young’s deeper problems, suggesting he may not be mentally stable.

This one is kind of a cheat since Kim did not direct these films, but instead wrote and produced both for younger directors. Both films are interesting in the sense that they are clearly penned by Kim when considering how the pair of films critique the South Korean film industry. In both, the leading male characters are portrayed as talented, but even more importantly as being egotistic, self-centered, and destined for their own downfall. In Rough Play, studio moguls and big shots are portrayed like gang lords, living in dark excess.

While retaining Kim’s ideas and critiques, Rough Cut and Rough Play are far more accessible than most of his directorial efforts — in both good and bad ways. For starters, they unfold similarly to Hollywood biopics about the career of famous artists and performers, or any story about filmmaking. Rough Cut especially works for wider audiences, and the success of Secret Reunion and The Front Line would go onto prove the director Jang Hun’s chops as a serious A-list filmmaker.

On the downside, you don’t get Kim’s direction and camerawork, despite both Rough Cut and Rough Play being well shot in their own right (Rough Cut’s finale is especially beautiful in it’s muddy glory). Kim is also casts his films well, mostly working with unknown talent, enhancing the immersion by removing familiarity.

Many popular South Korean faces are cast in both films, and they do a solid job, especially Joon Lee in Rough Play. Of the two, Rough Cut might be an easier watch, but they’re both worth recommending for Kim Ki-duk enthusiasts. If anything, it’s interesting to see where Kim’s proteges end up down the road, and wonder if Kim might finally be accepted in the Korean market now as a writer and producer.


And by chance you want more?


Then it’s definitely recommended that you check out the films not this list, especially Samaritan Girl. It’s a solid film by Kim, one that was tough to omit from selection. Then I’d go with his debut film, Crocodile, just to see an early look into at the themes and techniques Kim would go on to later refine and master. The Isle and The Coast Guard are from his “bad boy” days, retaining the toughness, cruelty, and gorgeous camera work. However, they each somewhat miss to the spark that would make them truly memorable, but that doesn’t mean they’re forgettableby any means, especially The Isle.

The Bow, Breathe, and Dream, which come after the “bad boy” period, and are interesting in their own right, but feel underwhelming in many cases. His recent feature, Moebius, is also recommended if you want to see Kim being really experimental. It is a silent film about a castrated boy who struggles with the incident since it was the consequence of his father’s infidelity. It’s actually quite funny at times, since certain scenes feel slapstick due to the heightened physical performances. But if one’s not laughing, then it’s probably going to come off as odd and uncomfortable.

His most recent feature, One on One, might not be available to a wider foreign audiences just yet, but the film itself feels like a step back for the filmmaker. It was cruel, dull, and empty in political commentary.

But what makes all his other narrative films above mostly recommendable is that Kim makes films based on his idea and vision, meaning that you won’t find Kim directing a kids film or an straightforward action film on behest a studio or some financiers. If there are genre conventions, Kim does it his way.


Where not to start: Real Fiction (2000)

Real Fiction (2000)

The tagline for this is deceptively simple: fed up by the constant abuse by local thugs and the unappreciative, a street artist name Na (Ju Jin-mo) tracks down and seeks revenge on those who wronged him. But the film is far from simple. Real Fiction’s production was a hybrid. With several different cameras (film, digital, 8mm) and film stock this story was shot as performed live in real time.

Now, while the story and the execution seem interesting even for an exercise, this film takes too long in building Na’s frustration. The edits between film stocks can actually feel quite neat at times, but at times also cheap, especially when digital — this is without mentioning the lackluster sound mix. Maybe after a few of Kim’s film this would be worth recommending, but its highly experimental nature is not the ideal place to start, especially since Kim claims that he plans each shot meticulously. Here he simply rolled with it.

For this list, only his narrative features were covered. Kim has made a few shorts and featurettes, but the Cannes winner Arirang is difficult to view unless one could find a region-2 or region-3 disc online. Therefore, it is the only film that I have not seen.

Wild Animals features as much Korean as it does French in the dialogue, and the version I saw did not have subtitles for the French portions. I was unable to discover if this was intentional or not, but due to Kim’s directing style and minimal use of dialogue, I was able to follow along.

Let me know if my choices were helpful in any way inthe comments below. Or maybe my picks suck and you have something better? Comment! After watching his films for research, I definitely need to talk to someone.

Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things I love, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.