Kim Ki-Duk’s Two Trilogies
I’m not of the opinion that there’s a division between films of art and of entertainment, but I understand why such a stereotype exists, and for the purposes of this post, I’m going to adhere to it. An art film requires a different approach to viewing it from the norm; it is said to hold deep themes, penetrating character investigations, challenges to convention, unique filmmaking techniques, and frequently, male nudity. Kim Ki-duk is a South Korean writer-director who has made thirteen films in the last ten years, and judging by the six of them that I’ve seen, there are few filmmakers out there (save your trippy non-representationalist/avant-garde types) who can be called “art” directors as comfortably as he.
While there is great consistency in technique, character portrayal, and tone across all of his films — Kim Ki-duk fits the auteur theory to a T — in five of them I’ve found two distinct (but unofficial) trilogies. These are not trilogies in a stretched-out-story sense: one is a stylistic trilogy, one is thematic (check the math: one of the five belongs to both). I’m calling them The Silence Trilogy and The Prostitutes’ Trilogy.
The Silence Trilogy
The first film of his that I saw, back before I even came to Korea, was Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring. Anybody who’s ever criticized a Hollywood blockbuster for lack of plot should take a look at this and see that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s one of the simplest movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s one of my favorites: There’s a monk who lives on a small, floating temple, out in the middle of a lake hidden in a green forested valley. There’s a child there with him, his student. The film is the story of that child’s life.
There is very little dialogue, but no lack of character or emotion; this film goes to places which I’ve not seen anywhere else. It has powerful moments, but overall it’s a very calm, soothing story. The best adjective, though, has to be “beautiful.” That’s a perfect summary for this film.
3-Iron is a stupid title for a special movie. The literal translation of the Korean name is “Empty Homes,” which is an absolutely perfect title. I don’t know why they chose “3-Iron” — it refers to a not-overly-significant plot device. “Empty Homes” pretty much nails the plot and the theme all at once.
When you live in South Korea, every time you come home you need to remove a bunch of food delivery fliers from your front door (even in an apartment building — you can take my word on that). Tae-suk drives around on his scooter taping these up (though it’s never clear if he actually works for the restaurant whose fliers he posts). He’ll then return that night, and if a flier remains unremoved, he’ll assume the homeowner is away on a trip. He picks the lock, goes in, and spends the night; he’ll make himself dinner, listen to some music, essentially become the resident for the night, and leave only one small, deliberate trace that he’s been there, to be a source of mystery when the proper residents return. At this point in the story, he comes across as a pretty big creep.
One of the houses he assumes ownership of isn’t quite empty: a woman is still there — Sun-hwa, a wife, unhappy and abused by her husband — and he doesn’t notice her, but she notices him, and she watches him as he makes himself comfortable in her home. When they do meet, he saves her from her cruel husband (by nailing him with golf balls, driven by a 3-Iron — get it?), and she joins him in his drifter life.
They’re both happy, but of course complications arise; by the end circumstances dictate that they can’t be together anymore, and yet he finds a way, and it’s something out of a fairy tale — impossible, even ridiculous, but quite wonderful.
All this occurs without either Tae-suk or Sun-hwa ever speaking a word (well, a few words are spoken, right at the very end). And since no other character gets more than a few minutes of screen time, this too, is essentially a silent film. Initially, it’s unsettling, this man moving from home to home while the owners are out, but in the silence his behaviour is eventually explained and understood, and by the end the film has become a delight.
There’s more talking in Bad Guy, but never from the main character. This is actually one I’d hoped to see again before writing this, because the first time I saw it I came out kind of repulsed. I knew it was something original, it was my second Kim Ki-duk film and it was clearly a work of depth, but man, if it wasn’t the grimmest thing I’d ever seen. The main character, a perpetually angry, violent man named Han-ki, essentially cons a sweet young college girl into becoming a prostiute. And when the film concludes the two of them are in a strange, unredeeming kind of love. The palette is far different from 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall … and Spring, but the energy level and unconvential progress through the story are not. There is talking in Bad Guy, but it still feels like there isn’t — generally, when a character speaks it helps to set mood more than it forward the plot.
The Prostitutes’ Trilogy
Bad Guy is the one that also fits in here, obviously. This three-pack of hooker-themed films are not simply clumped together on a plot contrivance — prostitution, and by extension, sex, are examined far more seriously and maturely here than you’d find in most places, and the three films complement each other’s postulations. As I said, it’s been too long since I’ve seen Bad Guy, but I recall its efforts to pull sex as far away from love as possible and then, somehow, finding love again on the other end. It also shows one of the darkest views of prostitution I’ve ever seen, and could be easily accused of misogyny (even by me, though in retrospect I’ve wondered if I was being fair — another good reason for a re-watch).
Samaritan Girl (or “Samaria” as it’s called here — again, a better title) gives us another potential controversial look at prostitution — this time the one selling herself is a schoolgirl in her very early teens, and she’s doing it completely voluntarily (to earn money for a trip), and also happily. And her schoolgirl best friend acts as her pimp. I can’t get any deeper into plot without giving away too much, but I will say that the reason the girl is so happy to be doing this is because she feels she’s helping these men who hire her, an attitude which bothers her friend. As is typical for Kim Ki-duk, by the end the film has weaved around to a whole new meaning.
Birdcage Inn tells of a family living in a small fishing town. They rent out the extra room on their property, and for a bit more money, male guests can also get the services of “The Girl.” The film starts with the arrival of the newest “Girl” (a 23-year old with a sweet and innocent look that belies her experiences), and it deals mostly with how her presence affects the 23-year old daughter of the family. In The Girl’s story we’re shown how sex can be a trap: she has potential, she’s an excellent illustrator and takes art classes on the side (though she has to ask permission from her boss first), but seems to accept that she’s reached her limit, and that her body is the only real value she can offer. On the other hand we have the daughter — an example of someone trapping herself, to be eventually liberated by sex. At odds initially, soon the two girls find a balance in each other that saves them both. Kim Ki-duk refuses to, across all three films of this trilogy, simply say “prostitution is good” or “prostitution is bad.” He’s giving us all sides of the argument as he sees is, avoiding judgement as much as he can.
In every movie he’s made, even the disturbing Bad Guy, Kim Ki-duk has shown an ability to access beauty more consistently than any other filmmaker whose work I’ve experienced. Even those set primarily in plain, worn-out Seoul environments still manage to find a few unique, stunning images that extend the moment as well as affixing themselves permanently in the mind’s eye. Individually, every one of these films is very recommendable (though with caution when talking about Bad Guy), but they add together into something greater than their parts. The sixth Kim Ki-duk film I’ve seen, The Coast Guard, adds to the overall as well, and while it is probably my least favorite of his works, it’s still good, and it shares the unexpected-but-somehow-logical character and plot arcs and a slight level of surreality with everything else of his I’ve seen. He’s got another seven movies I haven’t been able to check off the list yet; I certainly want to, but it can be tough to find movies over a few years old on Korean DVD (several of these I was only able to see because a boxed set was released). I guess I’ll have to wait if I want to confirm that these are in fact trilogies I’ve talked about, and not quadrilogies or sexilogies (though wouldn’t it be great if it really was The Prostitutes’ Sexilogy?).
All of the films I’ve mentioned, except for Birdcage Inn, seem to be available on North American DVD, so lucky you. And thinking back, I’m not sure if there is any male nudity in any of these, for which I apologize. Just trust me, they really are art. laebmada