Love Will Tear Us Apart: Time (2006)
Editor’s Notes: The following review of Time is a part of Rowena’s coverage of the 6th Annual Globus Film Series at the Japan Society in New York, Love Will Tear Us Apart.
The title is just ambiguous enough to perhaps seduce spectators who are not quite familiar with Kim Ki-duk’s cinema to walk into it expecting a thoughtful, decorative meditation on the passing of time through the trials and tribulations of a couple. Time is indeed about a meditation on time through the lens of a relationship. But the way Kim literally fleshes out this premise is a whole other matter, so that “trials” and “tribulations” are actually an understatement. The film begins with harrowing footage of the reality and materiality of cosmetic surgery, following which a woman who has just undergone surgery emerges from the clinic’s doors. The left door presents an image of “before”/“ugly,” while the right door presents an image of “after”/“pretty.” What happens between the “before” and “after” is what constitutes the film, which is nothing less than a whirlpool of jealousy, obsession, self-loathing, and utter angst, coupled with haunting imagery, as only Kim can present. In fact, this film presents a kind of horror unlike any to be found in Kim’s other films.
…a whirlpool of jealousy, obsession, self-loathing, and utter angst, coupled with haunting imagery, as only Kim can present.
For the briefest of seconds, Ji-woo (Ha Jeong-woo, in his first film with Kim) and Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon) appear to be the most normal of couples. But in the café where they meet, following Seh-hee bumping into the woman who emerges from the cosmetic surgery clinic, Seh-hee goes into a fit of enraged jealousy. Later, she apologises to Ji-woo for her “boring face” and “same body.” As quickly as the unhealthy state of their coupledom reveals itself in the film, Seh-hee disappears and leaves no trace for Ji-woo to track her, in the pursuit of becoming “just different” and acquiring a “new face.” She has decided to get a facelift, driven by a mixture of jealousy of Ji-woo looking at other women, extreme self-loathing, and an obsession with the ephemerality of love and feeling. The scene of Seh-hee watching footage of a particularly graphic case of cosmetic surgery is arguably already part of the process of her transformation, essentially of her death, and the ethical conundrum of the transgression of the uniqueness of one’s face and the identity and behaviour that go with it.
During the six months of recovery that Seh-hee requires after her surgery, Ji-woo goes on with his life, going on dates and bumping into women he once knew, while still trying to make sense of Seh-hee’s all-too-sudden disappearance from his life. His encounter with a masked woman in red on the ferry en route to the sculpture island also presents the question of presence and absence and their mysterious quality in relation to the face. Kim achieves beautiful angles and shots with the sensual sculptures by the shore, especially the hand-staircase. He will return again and again to this particular piece throughout the film, as if insisting on the simultaneous reality and surreality of the sense of touch that underlines the narrative. For her part, Seh-hee’s self-loathing and post-surgery face/identity have translated into a stunted life of a body with no past, an issue that arises when Seh-hee, now See-hee with her new face (played by actress Seong Hyeon-ah), cannot produce a photo of herself as a child to show to Ji-woo, who does not suspect anything.
Significantly, Ji-woo’s profession is that of a film editor, someone who goes through footage and cuts up and splices together different pieces, sequences, to create a particular rhythm, mood, and identity of a film…
Significantly, Ji-woo’s profession is that of a film editor, someone who goes through footage and cuts up and splices together different pieces, sequences, to create a particular rhythm, mood, and identity of a film, as would a cosmetic surgeon tweaking and cutting different parts of a face and/or body to equally achieve a specific effect, of beauty and symmetry. The scene of Seh-hee creating the template for her new face before her surgery by cutting up pictures of different parts of the face complements this idea. By extension, Ji-woo’s profession and Seh-hee’s collaged face can be read as a commentary on the epistemological violence of the process of filmmaking, with Kim finding fantastical visual equivalents to the figurative acts of editing and cutting the body and face, with his actors and the objects.
The café and the sculpture island serve as the film’s primary sites, striking a balance between the ordinary and the unusual. The film returns to them in an almost obsessive way, infusing them with eeriness and the uncanny as they witness love and identity lost through Seh-hee/See-hee and Ji-woo. But bridging these two sites is the other principal setting of the film, the clinic. While Time differs from the majority of Kim’s films for its substantial dialogue, in no way does it muffle the force of Kim’s visuals and settings. In one scene, one may notice in Ji-woo’s office a poster of Wild Animals, which refers to Kim’s own 1997 film and can be taken as a commentary on the characters of this film, including the doctor who performs all of the film’s surgeries and preys on Seh-hee’s fatigue and pain.
After all of these things, Kim concludes the film in a way that puts into cosmic doubt everything that one has just seen. In the process, he puts into further disarray not only the identity of the narrative and its characters but also that of the spectator’s vision.