This article is the second part in Rowena’s three part series on Contemporary Korean Cinema entitled ‘Kim Ki-duk and the Cinema of Embodied Unpleasures‘.
“Removed himself” is to be understood loosely. Beginning in 2008—the year of Dream and the start of Kim’s hiatus—the first batch of his former assistant directors launched their own directorial efforts. The likes of Juhn Jai-hong (Beautiful), Jang Hun (Rough Cut), and Lee Sang-woo (Tropical Manila) debuted their feature films, often produced and written by Kim himself. From 2009 to 2011, Yang Chul-soo (Bedevilled, 2009), Roh Hong-jin (Boy, 2011), and Moon Si-hyun (Sins of Fathers, 2011) have also debuted as filmmakers in their own right following their apprenticeship with Kim. In this way, Kim’s hiatus from filmmaking was never entirely complete. The year 2011 also saw the most recent works by Juhn (Poongsan), Jang (The Front Line), and Lee (Barbie), with Poongsan written by Kim. However the conditions of the Korean film industry may affect these first-, second, or even fifth-feature film productions, undeniable is the collective numbers that these filmmakers have amassed for Korean independent cinema up to the end of 2011, some with the help of Kim: fourteen films in four years. Also undeniable is the generally engaging (positive or negative) formal and narrative quality of all of these films, some of which openly embrace the mark of Kim’s cinematic themes and characterisations, even if some of these former assistant directors worked with Kim only once (and even with other filmmakers, at that).
The likes of Juhn Jai-hong (Beautiful), Jang Hun (Rough Cut), and Lee Sang-woo (Tropical Manila) debuted their feature films, often produced and written by Kim himself. From 2009 to 2011, Yang Chul-soo (Bedevilled, 2009), Roh Hong-jin (Boy, 2011), and Moon Si-hyun (Sins of Fathers, 2011) have also debuted as filmmakers in their own right following their apprenticeship with Kim.
On this note, undeniable too is how these directors schooled in Kim’s camp of filmmaking inject a critical sense of the marginal, the unsettling, and even the tortured in their films in the face of other, more easily accessible and therefore bankable genres like romantic comedies and melodramas: the corrosive island and its inhabitants and the killing spree that overtakes it in Yang’s Bedevilled; the parasitic characters surrounding the mute, nameless hero who crosses the DMZ in Juhn’s Poongsan and the descent into the madness of desire and beauty in Beautiful; the sordid mother-and-son/whore-pimp relationship in Lee’s Mother is a Whore (2009); even the characterisation of the gangster in Rough Cut. To be sure, such characteristics mark Kim’s own cinema to begin with. But his former assistant directors take on these aspects of the marginal, the unsettling, and the tortured in varying degrees and according to his/her point of view. For none of these filmmakers can be accused of simply cloning Kim’s cinema of embodied unpleasures, even when their films are based on a story or screenplay penned by Kim.
At bottom, the point is Kim’s ongoing impact and role in Korean independent filmmaking—and by extension, how underrated his impact and role are—not just as a filmmaker, but as a producer, writer, and unwitting mentor. Even on hiatus, or whatever one wants to call it, Kim’s tireless energies towards the seventh art are nothing short of impressive. For not only did Kim busy himself with writing screenplays for others during his two-year hiatus from filmmaking, he also, well, made a film.