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Kim Ki-Duk’s Two Trilogies

Saturday, August 5, 2006
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Oh, the kimchi you'd need to feed this group.

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 location's great, but what it really needs is a swimming pool.

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.

Another classic 2D fighter for MUGEN.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.

Spokesmodel for the new lifestyle store 'Buzzcuts and Bloodtrails.' 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.

This whore is too short!  Get her some platforms, fer Christ's sake!

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).

Away, perverts!  We have nothing for you!  Be gone!

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.

Like your women dumb?  Have I got one for you! 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 tNo, no, no!  The water goes outside the boat!  Dolt.hese 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

Go ahead and beat it to our pictures ... If you can find them!

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, January 31, 2007 1:11 pm

    Turns out our readership is going up up up. How long before this is one of the most popular posts on WordPress?

  2. Wednesday, January 31, 2007 1:49 pm

    And it’s so nice that they’re getting some culture along with…well…whatever else they’re after…

  3. Wednesday, January 31, 2007 8:58 pm

    Someone’s sudden and insatiable lust for naked Asian girls is pushing us prematurely towards the 10,000 views mark.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, January 31, 2007 10:45 pm

    Yes, well . . . I wasn’t sure if we should be so obvious about it, hence my earlier, criptic comment.

    We did have our best day ever today thanks to this new phenomenon, though.

  5. Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:11 pm

    I’ve solved our weird little problem. For those unaware (and who, besides us main guys would be aware. Who, besides us guys is even gonna read this?), we were having a ridiculous surge of visitors to this article, all seeking out either “naked asian girls” or “naked asian men” or some variety thereof.

    Which is odd, since you’ll notice the article above contains neither the word “naked” nor “Asian.” So how were they getting here? Can Google see those pictures of naked Asians and understand that they are, in fact, naked and Asian? Close.

    It’s in the hovertext. The hold-your-pointer-over-the-picture secret messages for those two naked Asian pictures above used to read as follows, respectively:

    “Young, naked Asian girls? Looks like our readership’s going up…”

    and

    “Naked Asian men? Looks like our readership’s going back down…”

    When you’re right half the time, you’re still wrong the other half. Anyway, they’ve been altered. No more disappointed one-handed typists at the Culturatti!

  6. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:13 pm

    Hey! I realized it was the hovertext a long time ago. Why would you change it?

  7. Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:17 pm

    I don’t want a bunch of filthy masturbators reading what is probably my classiest, highest-cultured post! Let them find their porn somewhere else on the Internet. I don’t think that’s putting them out too much…

  8. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:28 pm

    Well, who knows? Maybe they were coming here for masturbatory purposes (pun intended) but then discovering all the glorious cultural enrichment we had to offer. Or realizing they could buy Kim Ki-Duk’s movies and so masturbate to a moving image.

    Oh well. Anyway — there goes half our ‘readership.’

  9. Thursday, February 15, 2007 12:33 pm

    Nobody’s stopping you from filling your invisotext with the words and phrases on the minds of the lonesome horny.

  10. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, February 15, 2007 1:10 pm

    Hmm . . . maybe I’ll just do a post about Catherine Breillat. That should pack them in.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    Sunday, February 18, 2007 4:38 pm

    here’s all the naked asians? lol

  12. Saturday, January 5, 2008 8:53 pm

    Though there is always truth in art, art does not have to correspond with reality; every work is a methaphore. And as Eco stated in Opera Aperta,a provocation so every observer to complete with his interpretation. There is a book that might interest the author of this article “Des Methphores Obsedantes au Mythe Personnel”. Written in the early 60’s, it analyses the obsession that haunt everu creator and that are continously expressed in his work, mainly as metaphores f his obsessions..

  13. Monday, January 7, 2008 7:55 pm

    My French is okay, but it’s not that okay. Think I’ll need to track down an English translation of that one, and there don’t seem to be any.

  14. James permalink
    Friday, September 12, 2008 12:29 pm

    Finally, someone who takes Kim Ki-Duk seriously as a director on the internet. You might like to add Breath to the silent trilogy (really all his films fulfill this category to some extent or at least his main characters) and The Bow to the prostitute trilogy.

  15. Friday, September 12, 2008 11:42 pm

    But then they wouldn’t be trilogies anymore. You see why that wouldn’t work.

  16. James17930 permalink
    Saturday, September 13, 2008 10:13 pm

    And he uses a misplaced modifier. I say we completely disregard his existence.

  17. Sunday, September 14, 2008 4:09 am

    Uh, no. We will not disregard the existence of the guy giving me a compliment.

  18. James17930 permalink
    Monday, September 15, 2008 12:02 am

    But you’ve already slightly insulted him. Why not take it to the logical conclusion?

  19. ayan permalink
    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 8:58 am

    asshole…see ‘the isle’ . thts the best kim ki duk has ever directed…u are calling bad guy disturbing…god help u whn u see the isle. how can an asshole like u can even think of writing about kim ki duk without seeing the isle or crocodile. shame….

  20. James17930 permalink
    Thursday, October 2, 2008 11:12 am

    Wow. If one is an asshole for every movie one has not seen, then we are all assholes so many times over we might as well all . . . um . . . this similitude is breaking down.

    Little help?

  21. Friday, October 3, 2008 11:24 pm

    I’m gonna have to side with ayan on this one.

    But I’ll still help you with your mad lib: “We are all assholes so many times over we might as well all poop.”

  22. james03971 permalink
    Monday, October 20, 2008 2:46 am

    man are you a pretentious asshole like this is real life or is just your internet persona?

    the above comment is the reason i posted however to provide something other than to call that dude out for being a douchbag, spring, summer, etc. is my favorite work of his.

  23. Tuesday, November 11, 2008 8:45 am

    I enjoyed reading this very much. Not to many reviews come from the West for Kim Ki Duk. Especially not positive ones. And especially not for his not so well-known works. I was searching for Kim Ki-Duk, that’s how I ended up reading it:). I think watching his movies is, in a way, very self-distructive, considering that they show life and relationships in a very-very different way from what is called normal or comfortable. He is undoubtably the master in silence and a winner over gravity. Especially for The Isle.

  24. Anonymous permalink
    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 12:36 pm

    For those wondering about the rise in views, it may not be because of the hovertext, but because this review was cited on wikipedia as a reference for their article on kim ki-duk…

  25. Worthwhile? permalink
    Sunday, November 30, 2008 3:27 am

    Ever considered exploring the relationship between Kim Ki-Duk’s lack of dialogue and what Hitchcock has written about ‘Pure Cinema’? It’s worth a look. The Hitchcock comparison may seem farfetch’d, but I was also struck by similarities between what Kim Ki-Duk says about the Korean film industry in the commentary for 3-Iron and what Hitchcock writes of Hollywood.

  26. Taixology permalink
    Tuesday, January 27, 2009 1:47 am

    This thread is almost as interesting as the article. And I got here via wikipedia, FYI. Maybe it’s time for a part two to the article since that asshole (or are you the asshole?) pointed out that there were a few more Kim Ki-Duk flicks worth of criticism. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Best…Taxiology

  27. saeed permalink
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009 1:50 pm

    I want to know that why Mr Kim Ki-Duk use very bad sexy parts in his very good films. I am very sad for this matter.
    saeidh_61@yahoo.com

  28. James17930 permalink
    Friday, February 13, 2009 2:44 am

    I cried for a while too, but then I realized masturbating was much more fun.

  29. ecidnac permalink
    Thursday, August 20, 2009 4:50 pm

    i love kim’s films. he addresses things we only dream about doing but don’t have enough guts to actually execute…

  30. shiva permalink
    Monday, March 1, 2010 11:18 am

    hi…i am student doing my masters in English literature….i have opted to do my dissertation on the imagery of violence in kim ki duk movies. if there are any materials that u can help me with i would be really obliged..
    expectingh te best
    shiva

  31. schwipschwap permalink
    Monday, August 2, 2010 1:37 am

    Hey. . I really enjoyed the reviews. I’ve seen some of two of these movies. Not sure if you’ve seen his other ones(based on tthe comment conversations), but a lot of his films do involve a lot of silence and either have themes of prostitution or awkward love relationships like Bad Guy, which has all three. Isle was the first I’ve seen but I wouldn’t consider it his best, but its very beautiful. The set is very similar to spring, summer, fall, winter and spring and it has a prominent prostitution storyline with another awkward love relationship. For the most part, very silent film as well. I really liked how you did this article, and I’ll be sure to check out the other films I haven’t seen based off of what you wrote.

    Thanks to you and wikipedia for leading me here.

  32. Monday, November 29, 2010 7:30 am

    Just watched 3-iron alone in my room and when the film ended had no other choice but to stand up and give it a standing ovation. The movie is sublime.
    Now i’ve see all his movies in the next 7 days :)

  33. Monday, November 29, 2010 2:55 pm

    I ve seen all the four movies of your trilogies except The Birdcage Inn and The Coast Guard. All the movies of Kim I have ever seen are exceptional, fascinating, and I must say, ‘semi-abstract’ :)
    Every movie leaves at least one question in my mind. Why? I don’t know what Kim tries to express. I’m sure you have seen the movie ‘The Isle’, a movie that fooled me. What did the last sequence mean?
    In the movie 3-Iron, why did their summed weight become zero?
    In the movie The Bow, I could not understand the last sequence… why did that old man jumped on the sea? The young lady had sex with herself and she was bled, but how?
    I don’t know… Its puzzling. Can you help me getting out of this puzzles? Please … :)

  34. Sunday, June 19, 2011 11:04 am

    well, culturatti (good denomination!) please accept my modest congratulations… im just another one in millions to read your post and i have to say it’s like kim ki-duk’s films: it rises a lot of questions… QED… we are eventually fed with the questions, not with the answers, isn’t it?

    • Thursday, June 23, 2011 9:37 am

      Yes, we do have many questions, such as ‘what exactly the heck do you mean?’ and ‘Huh?’

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