Friday, February 25, 2011

Observing Kim Ki-duk Part 1: Auteur Origin

When I was instructed to choose a figure to analyse for a voice and vision task as part of my Screen Culture course at AFTRS, a few names immediately came to mind. The one that stuck was the enigmatic unique figure of Kim Ki-duk. An anomaly not only in Korean cinema but in world cinema, I applied the same approach of analysis and pattern recognition on his career as I have on many other directors. Tarantino once stated that the thing he enjoyed doing most was analysing the change in style and quality of a film director over their career, and I am no different. One day I may get around to posting those other analyses here, but for now my look at Kim Ki-duk will have to do. 

Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) was born on December 20, 1960 in Bonghwa, South Korea. Kim grew up slightly isolated from traditional society in the rural town of Bongwha near the North of South Korea, where the landscape is more mountainous and colder than most of the country. The Bonghwa county is known for its beauty and cultural elements, and was where the recent documentary hit “Old Partner” was filmed. I managed to catch Old Partner at Sydney Film Festival 2009 and was immediately struck by the beautiful surroundings and alternative view to life in Korea, in provided and was delighted to be able to screen the film at the film festival I work at, KOFFIA in 2010. Now this is not a biographic profile of Kim Ki-duk but an auteur analysis, but I feel outlining his childhood is an important element to discovering the origins of his voice and vision

The beautiful farmland background in "Old Partner"

Now Korea is known for having a turbulent history, after having secured freedom from Japanese occupation the country was given little time to recover before a civil war with the North broke out. There is no doubt that there is a gruesome streak seen running through the films of Kim Ki-duk,  which could be said is more down to the situation of the country he grew up in. The end of military dictatorship in the early 1990's opened the floodgates for a period of cultural liberalisation for filmmakers which not only enabled but probably inspired Kim to be more extreme. Rather than censoring filmmakers the Korean government decided to support them. Regulations were brought in place to ensure a minimum amount of time for Korean films to grace the cinema screens, which promoted more interest from investors and led to the phenomenon that would become known as the Korean Wave
" (1980's Korea was) dark and aggressive, and at the same time it resembled a comedy. Nowadays the political inspections have disappeared and we are now free to make movies on any topic. Young and fresh-minded producers have entered the market. In other words, there has been a generation shift in the movie industry." - Bong Joon-ho
The ocean and nature have strong represenations in Kim's filmography

Kim's family moved to Seoul when he was 9 years of age, and there he attended agricultural training school before dropping out at age 17 to take up work in factories. From age 20 to 25 he served in the marines, where he is said to have fit in well as his mentality suited the strict approach of the South Korean armed services. Afterwards he spent two years at a church for the visually impaired where he developed  an interest in becoming a preacher. Now not only are all these occupations evident in films throughout his career, Kim has also managed to reflect the mentality of the people in those positions. (Thanks to Darcy Paquet for this historic overview of his career path).

Kim Ki-duk stars as the Old Monk in "Spring Summer Autumn Winter ... and Spring", possibly a return to his childhood memories of life in Bonghwa.

Unlike most Korean film directors, or most directors worldwide in fact, who come from either a middle or upper class background and are well educated, Kim was none of these. Often Asian filmmakers have degrees in teaching film itself, and in fact a previously well known Korean director also called Kim Ki-duk was a professor in film! Potentially it is this upbringing that enabled him to create an extraordinary portrayal of those who are deprived of decent living conditions and live on the fringes of society. A form of 'method directing' if you will. His films are spiritual, where story is told not through words but through images and suggestion, which I believe may have stemmed from his childhood.
"No other Korean director knows the mass of humanity, so used to despair and degradation, who hardly know a path to self-redemption, as well as Kim Ki-duk does. Yet his films are also full of imaginative and attractive graphic images, like sparks of fire shooting out of darkness.” - Kim So-hee, Film Critic
In 1990 after scraping up enough money to travel to Europe, Kim moved to Paris to study fine arts, and began to earn a living selling paintings on the street. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the development of his auteur style, and possibly the most intriguing piece of trivia I have ever come across, is that it was in Paris where Kim admits to going to the theatre for the first time in his life! For one of the most critically acclaimed art-house directors  in the history of the medium, to not have visited a theatre until he was more than 30 years of age is quite incredible. Two films particularly captured his attention and have had a significant impact on his career and auteur style.

"Lovers on the Bridge" trailer

They were Leos Carax's "Lovers on the Bridge", which is about a young vagrant couple in love who live under the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, and "Silence of the Lambs", memorable for an inexperienced female detective having to work alongside a cannibalistic serial killer. These early experiences would inspire the gritty milieu and dim view of human relationships that characterize his films. Characters with limitations, disabilities or some sort of foreign connection to the world are consistently explored by Kim. Juliette Binoche's blind artist, is reflected in the blind girl in "Address Unknown" or mute girl in "The Isle". Carax's 'lovers' are eerily similar to those that appear in Kim's debut feature as a director, "Crocodile."

Crocodile was a low budget feature which received sensational reviews from movie critics in South Korea in 1996. It tells the story of a man living at the edge of the Han River in Seoul, who saves a woman trying to commit suicide. He then proceeds to rape and abuse her until an odd relationship develops between them. Both his first film and his follow up Wild Animals were violent, angry portrayals of alienated youth, obviously something he identified with. Wild Animals in fact tells the story of two illegal immigrants in Paris, a North-Korean former soldier and a South-Korean street painter, as they both struggle for survival in the French metropolis. A combination of Kim's own experiences and his love for Carax's feature becomes evident.

Now people through all forms of life have always and will always live through a filter of their upbringing and personal experiences. Such as Professional Athletes who played a particular sport since they were 5 years old, abused children going on to be abusers themselves, or people brought up in slums surrounded by violence living a life of crime. It is a fact that mankind struggles to break free from the filter of one's youth. I for one had to apply a pattern recognition approach to analysing film directors, something no doubt attributed to my mathematically focused schooldays. (I am a qualified Mathematician!)
Lovers on the Han river in "Crocodile"

The fact that Kim's films are an expression of his childhood is not something significant, it is that of the successful representation that he manages to recreate on screen is what should be noted. Kim has been likened to the likes of Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo in terms of art-house film making from the Korean peninsula. Their upbringings and formal education differ vastly with Lee Chang-dong a former Minister of Culture and Tourism to Korea, and Hong Sang-soo who studied film in the United States. While all 3 may feature flawed characters and tales of sexual repression, Kim's films are about characters on the fringes of society, Lee's are less about the characters themselves than the influence of the community that surrounds them, and Hong's are generally about artists and academics.

The fact of the matter is no one could have Kim Ki-duk's same auteur tyle due to differing life experiences and personal interests. I will delve into this further in the next episode of Observing Kim Ki-duk, where I cover the development and changes of his style throughout his career, and how the works of his numerous proteges, Jang Hun (Secret Reunion, Rough Cut), Yang Chul-soo (Bedevilled) and Roh Hong-jin (Boy) are alike and yet differ from his own.

Kieran Tully. Follow Tullys Recall on Twitter.

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