Editor’s Notes: Ki-duk Kim’s Pieta opens in limited theatrical release on Friday May 17th.
No one walks out of a Ki-duk Kim movie without being offended. Offense is a Kim trademark, and for many people, the fun stops there. At his weakest, the Korean auteur preys on our good taste for shock value. But at his strongest – and here he rivals Haneke or other dreadmasters – he uses offense to create some of the richest emotional moments you will ever see on screen.
He’s loved by the Venice Film Festival, where he’s won a slew of awards, including the Golden Lion for Pieta. Critics regularly praise his narrative twists and precise, almost surgical, insertion of cathartic turning points. And, of course, the violence, which occasionally riles animal rights’ groups.
For many observers, it’s sometimes hard to see what Kim is getting at. Below you will find some reactions to Pieta in particular, and Kim in general. Note that for a lot of people, it’s the offense that really doesn’t go down smoothly.
“I remember having a long conversation with another critic about Bad Guy (2001)—specifically, about whether Kim’s seemingly obsessive fixation on scary, impassive male assholes and the women who come to cower before them was the crux of a misogynist oeuvre or the tactics of a clever director engaged in a kind of on-going critique.”
-Adam Nayman from Cinemascope
“Animal cruelty, dry humping, multiple cripplings, motherfucking: Pieta’s a hollow, dead-behind-the-eyes Director Kim Ki-Duk movie.”
-John Semley, also Cinemascope (these guys really don’t like Kim)
“[On The Isle (2000)] This is the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen. You may not even want to read the descriptions in this review. Yet it is also beautiful, angry and sad, with a curious sick poetry, as if the Marquis de Sade had gone in for pastel landscapes.”
-Roger Ebert, no introduction needed
“It is not uncommon for South Korean films to involve sadomasochism, as indeed do many films from Japan, where bondage is a common subject of popular adult comic books. The material doesn’t reflect common behavior in those countries, but is intended to evoke extremes of violent emotion.”
-Also Ebert, providing some cultural context for what might seem exploitive to Westerners
So there’s a case to be made on both sides. Is Kim an overblown pervert who’s faux poetics are window-dressing for slow-burning torture porn? Or is he a cerebral and surgical provocateur and observer of human nature?
What makes him unique
A number of juxtaposed elements, clichés smashed into each other like a hadron collider yanking us along like The Isle’s fish-hooks yanking…well, you’ll have to watch The Isle to know what I’m talking about.
A recurring Kim situation is the studious observation of domestic rituals, repeated and modified. So a woman sponging a dirty bathroom on hands in knees becomes a woman sponging up a dead man’s blood on hands and knees (3-Iron). He’s like Ozu filming everyday objects and the details of the Japanese home – except Kim injects violence into the home, or hominess into the violence.
There is little actual gore in the Kim oeuvre. It seems right to begin calling his varied body of work an “oeuvre”. Pieta is, after all, announced as “the 18th film by Kim Ki-duk” in it’s opening credits. To be fair, Tarantino started that business with his 4th film, Kill Bill. Like Tarantino, Kim is a director inexorably linked to torture and mutilation – and, also like Tarantino sans Kill Bill, Kim relies more on suggestive editing and crisp sound editing than actual gore to disturb his audience.
Despite the wide swathe of style Kim has embraced over the years, ranging from the schoolgirl chit-chat of Samaritan Girl to the cocooned silences of 3-Iron and The Isle, some themes run strong:
One: Creeps trying to attain domestic bliss. Psychologically, every Kim protagonist (if that’s even the right word) is a loner. At the same time, these outsiders burn for normalcy and a kind of emotional resonance, and often use radical means to be “normal”, or fashion their own normal at the fringes of mainstream society. In 3-Iron, Hee Jae and Sun-hwa break into other people’s homes and play house like a settled couple, while the owners’ wedding photos overlook their oddball romance. There’s a similarly surreal domesticity at the end of The Isle, as a suicidal couple escape from the police on a house boat that looks like a miniature bungalow painting in nursery-wall colours.
Two: Collapsing the profane and the sentimental. This happens within a frame, even sometimes in one glorious emotional moment. In Samaritan Girl, (2004) two teenage girls are best friends and business partners: one is a prostitute, the other is her reluctant pimp. It’s in this film, which almost plays like a darker Amelie, that we find Kim’s love to fuck with us. Heavy stringy music plays underneath the two girls as they skip and gallivant around town, before cutting to the same friends negotiating sex with middle-aged men in cavernous black cars.
Three: Unknowable characters, especially women. Kim’s fixation on female victims is intense and unrelenting, but writing it off as misogyny is too easy, even if Kim is really just a rangy old man getting awards for creating his own dirty fantasies. In The Isle and Pieta, the women hold emotional power and wield violence pretty freely. Kim never gives you a character’s entire story – unless that character is the disposable asshole/rapist-in-waiting, and there are many of those in Bad Guy in particular. Kim holds back, letting his characters emotional roundabouts jump out at you from behind masked expressions.
The Isle (2000)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003)
Samaritan Girl (2004)