Kim Ki-duk's films are famous for their cruelty and violence -- fishhooks, broken glass, golf clubs and good, old-fashioned beatings all feature prominently. His emotional violence is even more graphic and brutal. I think he makes fun, comic films.
Perhaps I should explain. Back when Kim and his movies were considered fashionable and trendy -- some time between THE ISLE and BAD GUY -- I really was not a fan at all. His callous cruelty did not excite me, and listening to film festival dorks rattle on about whatever is hot at the moment is always a turnoff.
But Kim, along with Hong Sang-soo, was one of Korea's top art-house directors, so I suffered through his films and his regular appearance on the film festival circuit. I did my best to deflect queries from editors who asked for a story on Kim, preferring instead to profile others who were fascinating me at the time.
Gradually, Kim fell out of favor. Korean audiences disappeared after BAD GUY, finding his silent, Orientalism boring. I always am fascinated how SPRING SUMMER FALL WINTER ... AND SPRING was the biggest Korean film ever in the West (before D-WAR), even though it sold barely 35,000 tickets in Korea. Then international audiences grew tired of his repetitive brutalities and Orientalisms.
Around this time, I began to like his movies again. One day I was flipping around the TV dial, when I came across a re-run of BAD GUY (by far Kim's most successful film in Korea). For some reason I left it on, and for once, instead of being annoyed at how it did not accurately represent Korean society, I thought it was funny. Not that forced prostitution, stabbings, rape and assorted trauma are funny. But when I listened to the soft musical cues and suggestive edits, I suddenly realized that, despite the film's brutality, in fact it was at heart a romantic comedy. A sick, twisted romantic comedy, but a rom-com nonetheless.
The more I thought about his films, the more I began to rethink them all. Instead of taking them so seriously and getting upset about them, I now viewed them as parodies, violent subversions of typical Korean storytelling. I have no evidence that Kim ever intended any of his films to be parodies or funny at all, but that is how I look at them. I think it makes them much more interesting.
Which is a long way of saying that I caught the new Kim Ki-duk film, DREAM, the other night.
DREAM is about two people who become linked through their dreams. A guy named Jin (Odagiri Jo) dreams something, then Ran (Lee Na-young) sleepwalks and lives his dream. He dreams of an accident, she drives her car and gets into an accident. He dreams of meeting his old girlfriend, then Ran... well, that would be telling.
Soon Jin and Ran figure out their connection and try to take steps to sever the unwanted bond.
At first, the audience in my theater was really put off by this story. Most of all, they disliked Kim's main conceit, of having Jin talk in Japanese, Ran speak in Korean, but have both understand each other. The film moves slowly and illogically, too, which they did not like.
But about halfway through the film, people seemed to decide that this was also a comedy. And as soon as they started laughing, the movie was much more enjoyable. Seeing Ran struggling to avoid sleep by holding her eyelids open was pretty funny. Jin's more extreme methods were even funnier (well, at first).
Given that the film is called DREAM (or BIMONG in Korean), it seems unfair to me to criticize the movie for its dream logic. In fact, my criticism is that it was not weird enough.
DREAM also features plenty of Gahoe-dong Korean traditional houses and exoticisms. Designed to appeal to Westerns with a "thing" for Asia, I guess. Who are these characters? No idea. Where are their friends? Backstory? Is anyone weirded out by the dream merging thing? All details that Kim glosses over in order to focus on pretty interiors and general misanthropy.
Personally, I think Kim's high point was THE ISLE, with its gorgeous cinematography that worked with its bizarre story. Everything since then has felt like a pale imitation of that better film.
Although it is safe to say that the poster for DREAM is the most gorgeous Kim Ki-duk poster ever. Really great looking.
Btw, with about 50,000 admissions since it opened on Oct. 9, it looks like DREAM is Kim's most successful film since BAD GUY (I think... I don't have all his movie's numbers in front of me, but that is what I remember).