The work of Korean writer and director Kim Ki-duk is a sometimes shocking, consistently fascinating study in extremes. Kim, whose work will be spotlighted in the Ann Arbor Korean Independent Film Festival October 15-18 at the Michigan Theater, is widely noted for his transgressive use of sexual and violent content. You don’t get more lurid than the plot of his 2001 film Bad Guy, which screens October 18 at the Michigan. A seemingly mute thug (Cho Jae-hyun) entraps a young woman (Seo Won) into work at a brothel to pay off a debt she owes for stealing a wallet left behind in a bookstore. The thug, who has developed an obsessive love for the girl, watches from behind a one-way mirror as she is repeatedly raped and abused by the brothel’s patrons.
These sex scenes are heartrending to watch, and there also are multiple cringe-inducing scenes of vicious violence among the gangsters who manage the brothel. But while the content is extreme, it’s hard to call it sensationalistic. Kim isn’t interested in lingering on the gore or the nudity in close-ups; he’s interested in the extreme emotions that create and result from these situations. Kim’s focus is on character and performance, and he crafts the film’s most lurid moments as devastating emotional gut-punches. There’s obscene inhumanity in the material, but great humanity in its creator.
Bad Guy is intriguing for the way Kim draws out his characters’ emotions and plays with those of his audience, but it’s hard to really recommend the film for any entertainment value or philosophical statement beyond that. The same cannot be said for his gorgeous Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring. The 2003 film, which screens October 17 at the Michigan, follows one Buddhist monk through his life from childhood to middle age. Spring ditches Bad Guy’s gritty, neon-lit slum streets for the majestic natural environs of a pastoral lake, whereupon the monk’s solitary monastery floats. Yes, a floating monastery–and that’s just one example of the film’s understated magical realism, another interesting counterpoint to Bad Guy’s ugly reality. Characters walk through doors that have no walls on either side of them, and the young monk’s master seems able to materialize at will.
There’s still some sex and even a bit of violence in this serenely told tale of a monk struggling mightily to accept his master’s wisdom. The plot is simple and slow moving but still possessed of several significant twists. Spring is beautiful, moving, and very wise, and what you make of its ending depends a lot on your own personal philosophy.
Just as Kim endeavors to mine the humanity from the brutal scenario of Bad Guy, he’s fascinated by finding the fallibility and the base desires that arise even in a tranquil monastic environment. Sure, Kim deals in extremes, but his most illuminating creative choice is to pursue the extremes of extremes.