In the small pool of filmmakers known for being provocative, Kim Ki-duk is the oddest of ducks.
“I always ask myself one question: what is human? What does it mean to be human? Maybe people will consider my new films brutal again. But this violence is just a reflection of what they really are, of what is in each one of us to certain degree.”
South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk has died in Latvia aged 59 after contracting Covid-19, according to reports.
Korean director Kim Ki-duk's rationale behind the animal slaughter in his films: 'Hope they can be more sensitive to what is acceptable in different countries.'
In the small pool of filmmakers known for being provocative, Kim Ki-duk is the oddest of ducks. I first encountered his work thanks to a recommendation from the guy who ran the local DVD store. Yes, it was those days: 2004 to be precise.
He handed me a South Korean film made a year earlier. It was called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. If there’s such a thing as a Zen movie, this was it. I was transfixed by the floating monastery, by the Buddhist monk whose life unfolds unrelentingly, like the passage of seasons in the title.
It’s hard to reconcile the Kim Ki-duk of then with the director we know now, as the purveyor of sadistic images — though one could argue that even in a film as tranquil as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, we get the lakeside scene of a little boy torturing animals (a fish, a frog, a snake) by forcing a stone into their mouths, and watching them suffer. This scene was clipped from some international versions, because of animal cruelty, something that has become a signature in Kim’s movies.
I am not getting into what animal cruelty is. In a 2005 interview with the site Monsters and Critics, Kim was asked about The Isle (2000). The interviewer said: “In the United States we can watch films depicting animal cruelty and tell ourselves ‘it's only a movie’ because of established laws and regulations. If a dog is kicked out a window in a mainstream comedy like There’s Something about Mary, we know it’s not real. But in The Isle the audience is actually watching a real frog get skinned, real fish get mutilated, and so on. It’s very disturbing and seems to place an obstacle to the film’s reception…”
Kim said he had been concerned about this. “But the way I see it, the food that we eat today is no different. In America you eat beef, pork, and kill all these animals. And the people who eat these animals are not concerned with their slaughter. Animals are part of this cycle of consumption. It looks more cruel onscreen, but I don’t see the difference. And yes, there’s a cultural difference, and maybe Americans will have a problem with it — but if they can just be more sensitive to what is acceptable in different countries I'd hope they wouldn’t have too many issues with what’s shown on screen.”
I don’t buy what Kim does in his films, but as a vegetarian who became a meat-eater and is now a vegetarian again, I buy his logic. Can those of us who consume the meat of slaughtered animals object to their “slaughter” (okay, “torture”) on screen? Like I said, I don’t want to get into this argument in this particular article, but I do want to talk about how Kim “tortures” his human characters, too. The most famous example may be Moebius (2013), in which a deranged mother chops off her teenage son’s penis and swallows it as revenge for her husband’s infidelity. (To be fair to her, though, she attempts to chop off the husband’s penis, first.)
Some people will say this is a sick mind at work, but Kim is merely following the footsteps of Medea, the tragedy Euripides wrote in 431 BC. In the play, which is performed to this day, the spurned wife kills her two children so that her unfaithful husband will suffer his whole life, remembering this loss. My point is that deranged minds do sickening things (I am talking about the characters and not about Kim), and one of the most interesting things of Kim’s cinema is to get beyond the initial repulsion and understand the why.
Why does Medea kill her children? Why does the mother in Moebius castrate her son? It is fascinating to ponder on these situations through the medium of cinema, which offers us the safety of distance from these characters. One of my favourite why-s in Kim’s work comes in Pieta (2012), which is surely one of the most ironic movie titles of all time. Imagine the serene, pitiful Michelangelo sculpture of Mary cradling the body of the dead Jesus, and now think of Kim’s film where a son ends up molesting his mother.
Again, to be fair, the man does not believe this woman is his mother. She simply pops up at his door one day and apologises for abandoning him, and he dismisses her. This happens again and again, until we get to this scene, where he first extends a piece of bloody meat to her and says, “If you’re my mom, eat this.” The woman puts the flesh in her mouth and then gags when she notices the blood dripping from inside the man’s pants. He’s cut off a piece of his leg. If we are to take the title literally and this man is a Jesus-figure, then this act is like that of the Eucharist ritual of eating the “flesh” of Christ.
The mother eats this flesh, but the man is still not convinced. He shoves his hand between her legs and screams: “I came out of here? Here for sure? Really? Then, can I go back in?” Obviously, Kim’s films are not for everyone — and even I won’t call myself a fan, exactly. But this is not empty provocation. It is the act of a very violent man (he works for a loan shark, and he maims people under the pretext of collecting default payments) whose abandonment issues have made him who he is. The molestation, therefore, is not literal — it’s more metaphorical. In the worst possible way, I think he’s asking if his life can have a rewind button, if he can go back “in there”.
I love cinema for many, many reasons. One of them is to try and understand the un-understandable: the unstated why. One of the most clichéd descriptions of cinema is that it helps you “enter a whole new world and lose yourself in it” — and sometimes, this world can even be someone’s mind.
Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad was one such instance, where we were invited into a woman’s mind. But that was a far quieter film, far less disturbing than Pieta, which is also an invitation to enter Kim’s mind, Kim’s world. It’s a messed-up one, to be sure, but it’s fascinating.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).