Kim Ki Duk has made 12 feature films… Ag-o (Crocodile) in 1996 to Hwal in 2005. He has the reputation as the most famous Korean filmmaker ‘outside’ Korea, but I think he is our most important contemporary filmmaker who happens to be a Korean. His films take cinema forward in its narrative style, characterization, innovativeness in exploring a theme and technical finesse.
This report is about three Kim Ki Duk films – ‘Address Unknown’ (Suchwiin Bulmyeong) made in 2001, ‘The Isle’ (Seom) in 2000 and ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring’ (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) of 2003.
The three films are very contemporary and have characters with different levels of disconnection from the society. The characters involvement with outside world is not of their liking or initiative but when it happens it is often brutal. ‘The Isle’ and ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring’ have similarities in narration and settings and can be discussed together. Both the films are set on floating houses on lakes. The lake and the houses show the isolation from the world for the inhabitants – a natural barrier from civilization – the only connection to the mainland is a small boat.
‘The Isle’ is violent. A young girl lives in a lakeside shack and who never speaks runs a business of renting the small houseboats in the lake. Her client’s fish, contemplate, indulge in discreet affairs or are running away from law. Some of her customers drown after they ill-treat her –a lake ghost looking like the girl pulls them overboard.
She gets attracted to a man living in one of the houseboats. He is running away after a murder. And it is through their relationship Kim Ki Duk explores the theme of love…a never before seen interpretation in cinema.
Those of us who are conditioned to the western sensibilities of love and relationships may ask questions like ‘how this woman can like this guy in such a violent relationship’. But if you keep those prejudices aside and watch the film it is a revelatory experience. The emotional pain of belongingness and separation are shown physically… there are stomach churning violent scenes which are beautiful in an extreme way. On a personal note, I watched the final ten minutes of ‘The Isle’ standing…out of respect to the filmmaker.
The DVD has an interview with Kim Ki Duk – “I hope the film will be treated not as a small budget or big budget or star vehicle and I am consciously trying to break those partitions.”
‘Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring’ reminds you of a Buddhist fable in contemporary settings. The film starts in ‘Spring’ with a Buddhist monk teaching his young disciple lessons on life. Later, one ‘Summer’ a young woman starts living with them to cure an illness which the master feels is related to her soul.
The boy has grown into a fine young man and he goes through the trials and tribulations of love, lust and relationships with this woman. The relationship cures the woman and she is ready to leave. Ignoring the masters advice “lust can lead to murder” he leaves with the woman.
Years later, one ‘Fall’ he returns to the lake after killing the woman. Two policemen (they are the only ones with names in the film) catch up with him. The master gets him to carve hymns from “Pranja-parpamitasutra” to subside his anger. The policemen take him away, and soon the master ends his life.
One of the following ‘winters’ the man returns from jail (played by the Director himself) and starts living in the floating house. A woman, with her face covered in a mask (she might be the woman he loved and later killed) leaves him a child. He grows up resembling the kid we saw in ‘Spring’, the first episode and life goes on.
Just like ‘The Isle’, this film asks you to contemplate on what you saw. Kim Ki Duk explores ahimsa and the endless cycles of births and rebirths in the cosmos. Like ‘The Isle’ we ‘connect and get’ the film towards its end…when the man takes the child left by the veiled woman and the he grows to be the youngster we saw the beginning.
The films have very minimal dialogue. The plots are deceptively simple in the exterior. The technical qualities – cinematography, music, editing and sound design are world class.
Address Unknown’ is Kim Ki Duk’s most political film to date…on South Korean societies interaction with the American military retained to thwart an attack from North Korea. The main protagonist is half Korean half Black. Throughout the film his mother tries to reach his father in United States, but the letters are returned with a mark on red ink – ‘Address Unknown’. The other characters are a handicapped girl who needs an operation to restore sight to her right eye, an American soldier who offers to pay for her operation and a heartbroken boy.
Through the characters that are connected with the American military base, Kim Ki Duk portrays a rarely seen facet of Korean life – the fragmented relationship between an independent community and its supposed alien protector. The film is markedly anti-American in its sentiments. During the screening, I noticed Koreans in the audience getting emotional and angry when a mobile phone beeped in the auditorium.
Finally let me conclude this report with a quote from Kim Ki Duk about the underlying theme of his films (courtesy of Fred Topel, about.com)…
“It’s the relationship between humans and it’s the network of human beings. Even though in the world, people have different eye colors, different skin colors, or something, but ultimately they are humans which means they share the same things. We have a good conversation even though we cannot truly understand each other. But this is actually telling what I want through my film. It’s communication.”