Jang Keun Suk undoubtedly finds himself busy with the filming of Director Kim Ki Duk's latest film, Human Time. As a result, we do not expect him to be posting to his Instagram account or Tweeting to his fans. But that's okay. This may be the film that causes him to be taken seriously, both in Korea and internationally, as an actor rather than a rom-com pretty boy which, prior to the drama, The Royal Gambler (aka Daebak) is how he had been categorized. Regardless of his inability to communicate with his many millions of fans worldwide, The Eels Family will continue to post information on his latest endeavors...namely, the film on which he is currently working. This post will be our first in a series on the film.
Kim Ki Duk - His Filmography and Style
When Kim Ki Duk was a teenager, he dropped out of high school and went to work in a factory. At the age of 20, he joined the marines for a five year stint. These early experiences would inspire the gritty milieu and dim view of human relationships that characterize his films. A painter since childhood, Kim went to France in 1990, where he studied art and scraped together a meager living by selling his paintings on the streets. He said, “I spent two years as a painter on the beaches of Montpellier in France. I didn’t have any official exhibitions or anything; I just painted by myself and exhibited my work on the streets. I also had some street-exhibitions in Munich, Germany, where I got to know the work of Egon Schiele.”
In 1993, he returned to Korea and began writing scripts. Despite his lack of formal education, in 1993 he won the top award from the Educational Institute of Screenwriting for A Painter and a Criminal Condemned to Death. This was followed up in 1994 by a third place award in the KOFIC (Korean Film Council, then the Korea Motion Picture Promotion Corporation) Screenplay Competition for Double Exposure, and a first place award in the same competition in 1995 for Jaywalking.
He finished is first feature film Crocodile in 1996, about a mysterious man who collects the bodies of suicides out of Seoul’s Han River. Kim’s new and radical perspective on Korean society alienated many viewers but also generated a small but firm group of passionate fans. The focus on marginal people and spaces and a decidedly anti-mainstream aesthetic also marked his later films. Although, all were failures at the Korean box-office, they helped to garner Kim a cult following in Europe, where festivals continued to show his films. His third film, Birdcage Inn (1998), introduced one of his recurring themes -- prostitution -- which, in Kim's profoundly disenchanted world view, seems to represent the normal, disturbed state of affairs between men and women.
In a later interview, he characterized the relationship between men and women as well as young people’s disillusionment withe the world. “They were told things like “I love you”, and the person who said it did not really mean it. Because of these disappointments they lost their faith and trust and stopped talking altogether. The violence that they turn to, I prefer to call a kind of body language.
"I would like to think of it as more of a physical expression rather than just negative violence. The scars and wounds which mark my figures are the signs of experiences which young people go through, in an age when they can not really respond to outside traumas. They cannot protect themselves against physical abuse, for example from their parents, or verbal abuse or when they see their parents fight. Or when you walk in the street and someone beats you up. When those kinds of things happen, you are helpless and you cannot do anything about it. These experiences remain as scars for those people.
"I personally had experiences like these. For instance, in the past, some kids who were younger than me but physically stronger beat me up. I could not defend myself. Also, in the marines, because some of the soldiers were in a higher rank they beat me up for no logical reason. In the process of having gone through experiences like this I ask myself, why does this have to be? These questions stayed with me until I became a director and now I express how I think and feel about these things.”
While Birdcage Inn brought more lyrical elements to his style, it was 1999's The Isle that was his real breakthrough, produced by local powerhouse Myung Films, was selected to screen in competition at the 2000 Venice International Film Festival. Balancing pictorial beauty with at times stomach-turning imagery, it tells the story of a mute prostitute servicing fishermen at a lake resort. While his theme disturbed movie goers in Europe and the US, at the same time it was praised for its unique aesthetic, surreal imagery and sheer poetic beauty.
Next came the directorial tour de force, Real Fiction, a film shot in 200 minutes by simultaneously running 10 motion picture cameras and 2 digital video cameras about the real or imagined killing spree of a man. Address Unknown, filmed in 2001, is Kim’s most political film so far, which traces the scars left by the Korean war of the 1950s and its contemporary reverberations on a US Army base.
His following film, Bad Guy, became one of his most successful films and his first local box-office hit. The film's commercial success was chalked up to the sudden popularity of lead actor Jo Jae-hyun after starring in a hit TV drama, and also a high-profile, seductive marketing campaign by local major CJ Entertainment. The film was part of the competition at that year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
In 2002, Kim drew on his experiences in the marines for The Coast Guard in which a young recruit suffers moral anguish following an accidental shooting. But his 2003 feature Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring was, for many, a surprising turning point in Kim's artistic output. Set in a stunning landscape, it portrays the lives of two Buddhist monks and the lost souls who come to them for solace. A much more mature film than his previous efforts, it nonetheless focuses on the essential brutality of human nature. Although he continued to focus on marginalized elements of society, his work took on a more consciously spiritual aspect, downplaying violence and foregrounding themes of redemption and forgiveness. Kim's softer style played well with foreign audiences -- Spring, Summer... and 3-Iron were strong successes in Europe and North America -- and with festival juries.
In 2004, Kim won Best Director awards from Berlin for Samaritan Girl and from Venice for Three-Iron. (Each film, incidentally, was shot in a space of about two weeks.) True to his ideal of producing one film every year, he filmed The Bow in 2005, Time in 2006, Breath in 2007, Dream in 2008 (starring Joe Odagiri), and with Arirang and Amen coming out in 2011. But it’s Pieta that has earned Kim the most interest.
Pieta tells the story of a deranged, merciless debt collector who finds both redemption and death simultaneously. Made for just $13,000, the film won the Golden Lion Award at the 2012 Venice International Film Festival and was selected as South Korea’s official foreign language submission to the Academy Awards. Pieta delves into the discord of human relations within an extreme capitalist system, as it shows how family gets disrupted and money creates distrust between people.
“I think this is a universal experience not only in South Korea but also in Europe and U.S. The notion of forgiveness and distrust in the film is something we all need to think about on a humanistic level. I think I’m a different element than those directors. "If they are more like wood or metal, I’m more like soil. They could be transformed into something else, but I can’t. I don’t have the ability to find a middle ground with my audiences, and I know this too well. I’ve shot 18 films, and none of them had a middle ground. I think this is mainly because I didn’t study film making, and I don’t know as much about the process as they do. I don’t know any way other than how I shoot.
“I think the biggest change is that my earlier films were quite reckless and strong. I was very subjective. Many people who have watched Pieta have said my film making has become more objective. I think I’m just looking in new directions now. If before I looked towards the East, now I’m looking to the West. The funny thing is, audiences in Europe are amazed that my films are so different every time. When I come to Korea, though, people ask why my films are so similar. I can never understand this gap.”
His next film Mobius continues his penchant for dark stories. In it, a wife becomes angry about her husband’s affair, and in a drunken rage, takes a knife into the bedroom where he’s sleeping. Intent on slicing of his masculinity, he awakens, fights her off and tosses her bodily from the room. She turns instead to her son, sleeping in the next room. Characterized as a dark comedy, many watching the film will doubt the comedic undertones. The decision to craft Moebius as a dialogue-free piece heightens viewer involvement, making the audience concentrate heavily on the blocking and staging to follow a story that has no subtitles or other traditional sign markers.
Kim’s 20th film One on One, released in 2014, is a tale of revenge. After a teenage girl is murdered, the seven suspects are hunted down by members of a terrorist organization. Although, a Dong Seok, Kim Young Min and Lee Yi-kyung lead the cast, the film failed both at the box office and in the reviews.
Regardless of his disappointment over the lack of audience for the film, Kim went on to produce The Net, starring Rhoo Seung Baum. While The Net ostensibly takes on the political subject of the North-South Korean split, the underlying theme is makes a very good point about how citizens of both countries, in fact of all countries, unconsciously view the world through the blinders of their native political ideology.
In 2016, Kim rapidly filmed Stop in Japan with a Japanese cast. This film takes on the subject of nuclear disasters…specifically using the Fukushima disaster as its central core. While the Korean nuclear disaster film Pandora spent millions in production and had a huge audience, Stop was financed by Kim himself, as most of his film are, and only received a few hundred in each audience. Nevertheless, Stop is a deeply emotional tale of the devastating consequences of nuclear radiation on one family’s life.
Stop, the story of a young Japanese couple conflicted about a pregnancy after moving to Tokyo from an area near the disaster-struck Fukushima nuclear plant, was filmed entirely by Kim, with no cinematographer, no art director and no lighting technician. He made props in the morning and filmed in the afternoon, while the actors served as their own costume designer and offered their homes for the film set. Costing less than $10,000, it was filmed in 10 days. The anti-nuclear energy movie will stand as evidence of Kim's attempt to find an alternative movie-making venue outside of the South Korean system, where the top three film distributors control nearly three quarters of the movie theaters. Without support from one of them, a Korean movie stands no chance of succeeding at the box office.
"To be popular in South Korea, one has to have three (elements): major investment, major distribution and a well-known actor," Kim said. "I have come too far away from those things."
A review of Kim’s body of work wrote, “Although he became an internationally acclaimed director — his earlier works Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring and Three Iron still inspire young filmmakers around the world — at home he hasn't enjoyed the popularity or reverence reserved for peers such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Kim, the willful outsider, said he wants to stop telling stories as a Korean and wants to deal with issues concerning humanity.”
"Removing prejudices between people and class," he said. "I think that's the cinema's goal."
"Many foreign journalists ask me why my work is loved more abroad than it is in Korea," said Kim during his interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Jongno, central Seoul. "I have to say maybe because my stories are based on the universality of human beings. I mean every nation revolves around its people, but we Koreans have stronger pride in ourselves as we are taught that we are superior to others. But if you travel around and see the world, every nation has its own uniqueness and I like putting that in my films. My films are watched worldwide, in South America, Russia and China and I think it is because I delve into the universality of human beings in my stories," said Kim.
During the last 20 years, Kim has directed 22 films, including Pieta that won the Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival (VIFF) and Three-Iron, the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 61st VIFF. Kim's movies contain creepy and uncomfortable scenes unhesitatingly and try to be as realistic as possible to deliver his message.
“How you constitute the emotions of characters meaningfully is probably the only way to expand the movie apart from getting a big investment. If the movie has no drama or story, it has no value as a film. So, if you watch my film, you have to receive my message. There are many comfortable movies in this society. If my films are only seen by small audiences, I want to make films that people can emphasize with. I have my own world in my movies and it has be the center of the story. People can also perceive my stories differently as time passes on and when they come back to them.”
So, with his new film Human Time, populated by major Korean and Japanese actors, what message does Kim hope to impart to the viewing audience? All we know thus far is that the characters come from different social, and thus moral, strata who, finding themselves stranded on a converted naval to cruise ship, fight each other for the remaining food supplies.
More to come....