With Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta hitting iTunes and VOD this month, now seems the perfect opportunity to look back over the career of one of South Korea’s most provocative filmmakers. In a career spanning nearly two decades, Kim has directed close to twenty feature films and has evolved from enfant terrible into arthouse darling, courting controversy and collecting accolades at every turn.
Since his confrontational debut, Crocodile (1996), Kim has never shied away from exploring the more perverse aspects of his country’s fractured culture, its people’s confused identities and hypocrisy of human nature. As a result he struggled to find an audience at home, until repeated success on the European festival circuit made him impossible to ignore.
As the Asia Extreme phenomena exploded at the dawn of the new millennium, Kim rode that wave West with sexually charged and brutally violent films like The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001) and The Coast Guard (2002). Attentions turned to South Korea as the next hotbed of Asian Cinema, and despite often distancing himself from his fellow countrymen due to his lack of formal training, Kim helped boost the Korean industry on the festival circuit. Not only did this period see Kim produce the best work of his career, he won Best Director awards at both Berlin and Venice in 2004 – for different films.
Kim’s work during the latter half of the decade became increasingly surreal and self-indulgent, but even when films like The Bow (2005) or Breath (2007) missed the mark narratively and thematically, he continued to hone his craft as a filmmaker. After a succession of poor business deals, things came to a head on the set of Dream (2008), when lead actress Lee Na-yeong nearly died while shooting a scene in which she is hanged. For a while it looked like Kim would never work again.
It was three years before Arirang emerged in 2011, and the reception was less than rapturous. Cannes awarded its Une Certain Regard prize to the self-reflexive, one-man documentary, in which Kim locks himself in a remote cabin and goes all Captain Willard, drunkenly berating those who betrayed and cheated him. Elsewhere, the film was poorly received and some feared it sounded the death knell for Kim’s career. But then came Pieta.
There are themes and motifs that recur throughout Kim’s work: sparse dialogue, dysfunctional relationships, misogyny, fragile machismo, animal cruelty, prostitution, sexual violence and a penchant for enigmatic conclusions. However he often explores notions of faith, forgiveness and redemption too. Pieta marks a powerful reappraisal of many of these themes, and in doing so marks a triumphant and - to his fans, reassuring - return to form.
Jo Min-soo is incredible as the mysterious middle-aged Mi-son, who appears on the doorstep of a violent, yet emotionally vulnerable, loan shark enforcer (Lee Jeong-jin). She claims to be the young thug’s mother, and refuses to leave no matter how poorly she is treated. What unfolds is every bit as confrontational, shocking yet also darkly humorous as anything from Kim’s golden period, and made history beating P.T. Anderson’s The Master to win the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, becoming the first South Korean film to scoop the top award at any of the world’s top three film festivals.
Now that Pieta is available to watch via VOD and iTunes, ahead of a limited theatrical run beginning May 17 (more dates/markets will be added) and a beautiful Mondo poster available for purchase, we take a look at five of the best from Kim’s back catalogue, to prime you for the beauty and brutality that lies in store:
The Isle (2000) – Availabe on Netflix Instant
At a remote fishing resort, the beautiful yet mute Hee-jin (Suh Jung) services her guests with tackle, alcohol and even sex, for the right price. When she intervenes to stop reclusive fugitive Hyun-shik (Kim Yoo-suk) from killing himself, a passionate yet deeply dysfunctional relationship begins between them, that in time leads to jealousy, murder and some horrific misuse of fishing tackle. Lauded for its marriage of beautiful imagery and deeply disturbing content, while berated for its shocking depictions of animal cruelty, this is the film that broke Kim onto the world stage, where he has remained ever since.
Bad Guy (2001) – Available on Amazon Instant Video
In Kim’s most extreme portrayal of “tough love”, a low-level pimp (Jo Jae-hyeon) targets a respectable college student (Seo Won), forcing her into a life of prostitution, only to become fiercely protective of her. A brutal examination of a modern society still burdened by archaic sexism and a gaping class divide, the film is also a powerful story of obsession, voyeurism, exploitation and love, in all its ugly guises that builds to a deliberately provocative finale.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) – Available on iTunes
Kim addresses faith, human nature and free will head on in this beautiful film, which charts the evolution of a Buddhist monk through the different chapters of his life. Located entirely in and around an isolated water-bound temple, and told at an unhurried meditative pace, this easily qualifies as Kim’s most tranquil film, but nonetheless features sadism, lust, jealousy and murder on the road to enlightenment.
Samaritan Girl (2004) – Available on iTunes
When a highschooler’s efforts to prostitute her best friend end in tragedy, Yeo-jin (Kwak Ji-min) resolves to sleep with the clients herself and return their money. But when her cop father (Lee Eol) finds out, further violence is just around the corner. Teenage rebellion, religious delusion, parental responsibility and bloody-minded revenge all jostle for attention in this frank, yet deeply passionate film that won Kim the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival.
3-iron (2004) – Availabe on Amazon Instant Video
Kim’s output reaches a stunning climax here in a film that marries strong characterization with glossy production values in a story that could only come from this singular filmmaker. A silent young man (Jae Hee) breaks into people’s houses, eats their food, wears their clothes, does their laundry and then leaves. But when he is caught by a reclusive, subjugated housewife (Lee Seung-yeon), they form an unlikely partnership that offers the possibility of hope, escape and freedom for them both. Perhaps the most optimistic of Kim’s films to-date, 3-iron is beautiful, surreal, perverse and almost dream-like in execution and deservedly won four awards at Venice that year, including Best Director.