With 22 films currently in his career, and having won awards in Cannes, Berlin, Venice and many others, Kim Ki-duk is one of the most distinguishable South Korean filmmakers in the world, despite the extremity of his films, which have regularly caused him trouble.
Since his first complete work in 1995, titled “Crocodile”, he has been writing and directing one or two films per year, as he gained fame for their low-budget productions, their very short shooting time, and the lack of any kinds of restraints regarding the depiction of themes that most consider taboo.
Global acclaim came with “The Isle”, as the film became notorious when an Italian journalist fainted during the press screening in Venice. The press’s opinion of him was always ambiguous, with a large part of South Korean journalists deeming him a monster, a psychopath, and utterly useless.
Kim, however, maybe as a reaction, continued filming extreme movies, finding his apogee in “Moebius”, which was banned from screening, resulting in Kim having to cut 21 scenes in order to be able to show it in South Korea.
Since then, he toned down a bit, while his latest film, “The Net”, deals with the relationships of the two Koreas, in his own, unique style. Here are his 22 films, ranked from worst to best.
22. Stop (2015)
Kim tackled the issue of the Fukushima disaster with this Korean-Japanese co-production, which features Japanese actors.
During the meltdown of the reactors in Fukushima, Miki and Sabu, a young couple living in the area, are exposed to radiation before they are evacuated to Tokyo. Miki, however, was pregnant at the time and soon after their relocation, a government official visits her and suggests she should have an abortion. As they try to address their problem in radically different ways, both succumb to madness.
Kim tries, once more, to communicate his message by shocking his audience, but both the setting and the acting crew seem to have him placed outside of his comfort zone. In that fashion, he seems to pull punches a lot, and thus, his ecological message becomes indifferent. At the same time, the acting is mediocre and the script seems a bit thin.
However, the film has one highlight, and that is its ending.
21. One on One (2014)
On May 9, a high school girl named Oh Min-ju is brutally murdered. Afterwards, seven members of a terrorist group called “Shadow” hunt down the seven suspects of the murder.
The film has many similarities with Kim’s older films, like the use of the handheld camera, the extreme violence, and the low-budget production values. However, in contrast to most of his films, “One on One” features lots of dialogue, in a tendency that eventually faulted the movie, along with the rather strange narrative.
On the other hand, Kim manages to present a social comment about the concept of violence and particularly its justification towards cold-hearted criminals.
20. Real Fiction (2000)
More of an experiment than an actual movie, “Real Fiction” involved Kim and his 11 associate directors shooting for 20 minutes in real time, in different locations, with ten 35mm cameras and 10 digicams. The experiment resulted in an utterly linear film that was edited down to 85 minutes.
A street artist paints portraits of people in parks; however, he is constantly bullied, both by unsatisfied customers and by thugs. Eventually, a woman who records him as he paints her portrait brings him into a theater, where an actor beats him. This act seems to unleash the rage the artist had inside him, and leads him down a path of revenge against all who have wronged him.
Kim directs a film about revenge and the level of violence a man can take before he succumbs to it. Through a series of abstract vignettes filled with violence, and his rather peculiar sense of humor, Kim presents a surrealistic movie that is very hard to follow, and, unavoidably, hard to watch.
19. Amen (2011)
The film follows an unnamed young girl who roams Europe in search of her boyfriend, but seems to miss him at every place she arrives. During her travels, and particularly when she is asleep, a masked man visits her, initially raping her and stealing all her things, but then changing his behaviour.
Shot mostly with a handheld camera, which occasionally moves in a frantic fashion, “Amen” seems like another of Kim’s experiments, both in terms of cinematography and narrative, and it looks like an abstract fairy tale with splashes of exploitation. The exploitation scenes, however, are the ones where the technical aspect of the film seems to work the best.
Kim Ye-na is great in her silent protagonist role, with her character benefitting the most by both her performance and her physique, and particularly her face.
18. Dream (2008)
Jin wakes up from a nightmare of a traffic accident and decides to drive to the spot where the accident occurred. He finds out that his dream was real and follows the police to the suspect’s home, who turns out to be a woman named Ran.
She denies the charges, stating that she was asleep the whole time, while Jin intervenes, explaining his dream to the police and asks to be arrested instead. The police do not believe him and arrest the girl. Eventually, the two of them realize that Ran acts out what Jin sees in his sleep.
Kim directs a film that focuses on the concept of dreams and their connection to reality. In that fashion, his narrative functions like a dream, which can be rather confusing at times, as a magical realism seems to permeate the whole film.
The cinematography is once more exceptional, with Kim Gi-tae presenting an impressive combination of minimalism and lushness in colors and textures, as depicted through the differences of the houses of the two protagonists.
17. Breath (2007)
Yeon is an unhappily married woman who finds out that her husband is having an affair. On a whim, and after watching on the news the case of a man on the death row who has attempted suicide twice, she decides to visit him. Eventually, his happiness becomes her ulterior purpose, as both begin having feelings for each other.
Kim uses the differences of the lives of the protagonists to present a story about life and death, refraining from implementing any shocking elements, in one of his “easiest” films to watch. The cinematography is again impressive, in a combination of artistry and symbolism that becomes the production’s best element. The movie, however, has a number of faults, particularly deriving from the irrelevance of the convict, whose character and reasons for being in the particular situation are not examined at all.
Furthermore, Kim seems somewhat restrained, in a tactic that eventually faults the film.
16. Arirang (2011)
Following an incident in “Dream”, where the lead protagonist, Lee Na-young, almost died during a hanging scene, and after his long-time assistant, Jang Hoon and the producer of the film “Poongsan”, abandoned him during the film’s shootings the same year (2011), Kim retreated to a secluded mountain house.
Eventually he decided to shoot a documentary of shorts while there, entirely by himself, that came to be “ARIRANG – Movie”. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and won the top award for best film.
Shot in a guerilla and very experimental fashion, the documentary is a travel through his equally guerilla life in a house so cold that he has to sleep in a tent placed in its interior, and through his psychological status at the time. “ARIRANG – Movie” features a number of monologues with the camera zoomed in at his face, while Kim also used some editing to present two instances of himself talking to each other, and his shadow asking him questions.
During these monologues, where Kim is occasionally drunk, he explains his thoughts and feelings regarding the two incidents, which made him unable to shoot a movie for quite some time. His psychological status and the style of the film are revealed during one of these monologues: “I can’t make a film, so I am shooting myself. My life is like a documentary and a drama.” A bit later, he explains the nature of his films: “Life for me is sadism, self-torture and masochism. Torturing others, getting tortured and torturing oneself.”
15. The Net (2016)
The net of a poor North Korean fisherman gets caught in the engine of his boat, and he accidentally drifts into South Korea. The authorities arrest him and start interrogating him brutally, and they also try to make him defect. His situation is worsened by his main interrogator who seems to harbor an intense hatred for North Koreans. On the other hand, a younger agent assigned to him is much kinder and even helps him with his situation.
Eventually, he manages to return to his country and family, but he has to face the same treatment there as well.
Kim deals with the issue of the two Koreas, making a point of demonstrating that, despite the financial differences (rich South, poor North), the ideologies and the practices regarding the particular concept remain the same, with both countries being equally inhumane. However, his point is presented rather early in the film, which seems to lag much after a fashion.
On the other hand, Ryoo Seung-bum as the fisherman, Kim Young-min as the “villain”, and Lee Won-geun as Oh Jin-woo provide quite good performances that actually carry the film.
14. Wild Animals (1997)
Kim’s second film takes place in France, where he studied and worked as a street painter, and the story revolves around three Koreans. Hong-san is a former soldier of the North Korean army who dreams of going to Paris and signing up in the foreign legion. On the train to Paris, he meets Laura, a Korean whose boyfriend has her working at a club at the red light district in Paris. When the French police arrive at their compartment, Laura helps him, and he eventually falls in love with her.
Chong-hae is a small time crook and aspiring painter who spends his time in a studio for Korean artists, where he steals their paintings and sells them on the streets. At some point, he meets Corinne, an illegal Hungarian immigrant, and after he helps her with some men who assault her, the two of them form a relationship. Through a series of almost surreal events, Hong-san and Chong-hae end up living together, through a very peculiar kind of friendship.
Inside a setting of almost constant violence, Kim directs a film that focuses on the lives of Korean immigrants in Europe, as well as love, and male friendship. The world he creates, though, is an onerous one with few moments of happiness, where dog-eat-dog is the rule, and trust is nowhere to be found. The shocking scenes are rather graphic, with the one with the frozen fish standing out, although Kim had not yet completely found his style in this movie.
Despite the presence of many characters, the central character remains Chong-hae, a man who struggles with his treacherous nature as he seems completely ignorant to the concept of friendship. Jo Jae-hyeon gives an impressive performance in the role.
13. Time (2006)
Seh-hee and Ji-woo are deeply in love with each other, but Seh-hee is worried that Ji-woo may soon grow tired of her, and she becomes jealous of him. Soon, she disappears and proceeds to have plastic surgery that completely changes her face. Ji-woo desperately tries to find her for six months until he finds another girl he feels he can love. At the same time, he starts receiving messages that suggest Seh-hee is back and he realizes he had not gotten over her.
Kim uses the concept of plastic surgery, which he seems to despise, to present his opinion on the theme of “what if we could change ourselves by changing our appearance?” His take, however, goes much further than this, as he examines the responses of other people in this change, and in the end, the concept of how other people perceive us, particularly the ones we love.
His narrative is rather abstract, to the point of becoming dreamy, and the film seems to lose its coherence after a fashion. In terms of cinematography, though, “Time” is masterful, in a tendency that finds its apogee in the unusual sculptures on the beach, and particularly the one with the ladder between the hands.
12. Birdcage Inn (1998)
Kim deals with one of his favorite themes – prostitution – in another low-budget film, which was the one that made him known outside the borders of Korea, through its screening at the Karlovy Vary Festival.
This time, he examines the relationship of Jin-ah, a 24-year old prostitute who gets a job at a seaside motel, with the members of the family who run it. Their behaviour towards her varies. The father and son want to have sex with her, and they fall in love with her.
The daughter hates her because she represents how disgraceful the family business is while the mother, who is also the boss, treats her typically, as an employee. She, on the other hand, carries many crosses, but the only thing she seems to search for is a family.
All the trademarks of Kim’s cinema are here – few dialogues, brief sexual scenes, violence, and a permeating sense of depression. At the same time, and despite the miniscule budget, he manages to present a number of images of extreme beauty, even in this setting.
11. Crocodile (1996)
Kim’s debut was a definite forerunner of what was about to follow, as the enfant terrible of South Korean cinema did not hold any punches in the depiction of his extreme themes.
‘Crocodile’ is the nickname of a very violent and ill-tempered homeless man, who lives under a bridge over Han River. He stays there with two “sidekicks”, a young boy named Yang-byul and an old man nicknamed Grandfather, who seems to be able to fix anything that comes across his way, from motorcycles and coffee machines, to wounds that need stitching.
Crocodile makes a living in two ways. He has Yang-buyl selling chewing gum in a park, and he steals the belongings of people who commit suicide by falling in the river. However, most of the money he wins he gambles away, playing cards in a suspicious parlor. One day he saves a woman, Hyeon-jeong, who falls into the river, and being the beast he is, he immediately starts raping her. Despite his treatment of her, she decides to stay with them. When Crocodile tries to meddle in her life story, the whole gang gets into deep trouble.
Kim directs another violent but meaningful film, as he focuses on his characters, particularly Crocodile. The main hero of the movie symbolizes the hopelessness of the world, since, despite all his efforts, he cannot surpass his own nature, which has him trying to rape women and gambling away all the money he earns, and being beaten in both cases.
In that fashion, his violent temper is somewhat justified, but Kim does not let the audience like him even for a minute, since his brutality is addressed toward a woman, an older man, and a child. Furthermore, whenever he has to face an opponent his own size and age, he ends up beaten, in a repeated act that proves he can only direct his violence toward the aforementioned, in this cruel, dog-eat-dog world. Lastly, when he decides to act nicely, he is punished even more, and so are his “friends”.
10. Address Unknown (2001)
The slightly autobiographical story takes place in 1970, in a rural town near a US military base. The inhabitants of the town include Chang-gook, a half-breed who works for Dog Eyes, killing dogs whose meat he sells to local restaurants. According to his mother, his father is an African-American, who they are going to visit eventually, in the US.
Furthermore, she keeps sending letters to him, all of which are returned with an “ADDRESS UNKNOWN” sign on them. Chang-gook feel disgraced by his mother’s behaviour and as he finds himself a victim of racial behaviour, he unleashes his anger on her. His situation becomes even worse when his mother’s new boyfriend witnesses his behaviour.
Ji-heum is a quiet, timid man who is in love with Eun-ok. However, she stays away from everyone, due to her deformed eye. One day, an American soldier offers to pay for her plastic surgery if she becomes his girlfriend.
Kim directs a utterly realistic drama, not censoring himself in any way, particularly in the violent scenes, most of which are rather graphic. Inside this inhumane setting, Kim presents a distinct message: War has no winners, just physical, mental, and social consequences. All the characters in the film suffer; from nostalgia for the past, from the government’s treatment, from their place in society, and from a longing for their country.
9. Samaritan Girl (2004)
Two high school friends, Yeo-jin and Jae-young, are planning to travel through Europe together. In order to raise the money for the trip, Jae-young becomes a prostitute and Yeo-jin functions as her pimp, getting her clients and guarding her during the “sessions”.
One day, while Yeo-jin is not paying attention, the police raids the house where Jae-young is working, forcing her to jump through a window in order to avoid arrest. In her effort, she is injured badly and is transferred to the hospital. While there, she asks her friend to bring her favorite customer to the hospital.
He, however, asks Yeo-jin to have sex with him if he is to follow her. She accepts, not having any other choice, but when they arrive atf the hospital, Jae-young is already dead. The succession of events shocks Yeo-jin, who decides to search for every customer her friend has slept with and return them their money, after she has sex with them.
The results of her decision are far more violent than she anticipated, particularly when her father finds out what she has been doing.
“Samaritan Girl” is one of the least violent films from Kim, although the fact does not detract from the cruelty of the movie, which is rather permeating. In this setting, Kim examines a phenomenon that is mostly witnessed in Japan, where schoolgirls have sex with older men to raise money to buy expensive clothes, smart phones, etc.
Obviously, Kim takes the side of the girls, presenting them as too young to understand the implications of their actions. On the other hand, he pulls no punches on the depiction of the particular men, who are presented as despicable human beings, a fact stressed even more because most of them have daughters of that age.
8. The Coast Guard (2002)
Corporal Kang, a member of the coast guard, has been brainwashed so much by his superiors that he has become obsessed with finding and killing a North Korean spy during his patrols, while military code has become his bible.
When an unfortunate local couple crosses the forbidden line, Kang unleashes his whole wrath, emptying his gun and even throwing a grenade towards his target. The man from the couple dies completely dismembered, and the girl, Mi-yeong, loses her mind. However, despite praise from his higher-ups, Kang does not seem to be in a better situation.
Kim uses many crosscuts to highlight the deteriorating psychological state of both characters after the incident, and in that fashion, he presents a distinct political message. The military creates more violence than it deters, and through this concept, in essence, it justifies its existence. Kang becomes the symbol of this comment, and Jang Dong-gun plays the part to perfection.
7. The Bow (2005)
For 10 years, a 16-year old girl and an old man have been living on a boat anchored in the open sea that serves as a fishing spot for amateurs. The girl is beautiful and kind and frequently excites the visitors. The old man, however, is always quick to “kill” any thoughts they have, with his bow. Furthermore, the old man has promised her that he will marry her on her 17th birthday. His plans fall apart when a team of fishermen, including a young student, visits the boat.
Kim directs a minimalist film that takes place solely on the boat, but at the same time is filled with allegory and meaningfulness. Surrealism permeates the film, with the concept of the girl who predicts fortunes as she swings in front of the Buddha image on the side of the boat, while the old man is shooting three arrows at her, being the zenith of this tendency, along with the film’s ending.
Jeon Seong-hwang as the old man and Han Yeo-reum as the girl give magnificent performances, despite the laconic nature of their roles.
6. Bad Guy (2001)
Han-ki, a pimp who never speaks, stumbles upon Sun-hwa, a student, in the street and decides to kiss her. Expectantly, and after her boyfriend’s failed attempts to make him go away, a group of soldiers that have been watching the events beat him up until he stops resisting, and the girls spits and curses him before she leaves.
The enraged Han-ki, however, manages to entrap her with the help of his associate, in a series of events that end up with her working as a prostitute in order to pay for the money they accuse her of stealing. During the times she is having sex with her clients, Han-ki watches her through a double mirror in the next room.
Kim’s style finds one of its apogees in this film, with the graphic depiction of violence, the extreme sex scenes, the scarce dialogues, the surrealism, and the unexpected finale. In his own extreme way, Kim presents an allegory on the differences of the classes, with Han-ki representing the poor and marginalized, and Sun-hwa the spoiled bourgeoisie.
Furthermore, he makes a comment about the inhumane turn love can take. Han-ki, both as a conception and regarding Jo Jae-hyun’s performance, is the highlight of the film, along with the script.
5. The Isle (2000)
Hee Jin is a young woman who rents floating platforms to anglers in a lake. Additionally, she provides them with prostitutes if they ask, and she occasionally prostitutes herself. Her life is miserable though calm, until Hyun Shik arrives, an unusual renter who seems to have issues with the police. Nevertheless, the two of them strike a peculiar love affair, tortured by egoism, fatal accidents, and a ferociousness that leads to extreme measures by both of them.
Here, Kim presents an ode to antithesis. The splendid scenery at the lake in contrast to the mundane life of the anglers; the wealth of the entrepreneur who finds the body in contrast to the couple’s poorness; the anger of both the protagonists in contrast to their unfathomable love; the graphic scenes of self-injury in contrast to the poetic, calm scenery.
His direction is characterized by utmost simplicity, since he has removed any kind of explanatory scenes. His protagonists’ motives are simple in that they are animalistic. They feel lust, jealousy, pain, and fear, and they react accordingly.
The fact is that “Pieta” and “Moebius” are further gruesome altogether. However, “The Isle” incorporates the two foremost grisly scenes in Kim’s filmography; one being the suicide attempts with hooks, and the other being the violent scenes with animals that Kim stated were real.
At its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, a large share of the audience walked out, while at the Venice Film Festival a few even fainted.
4. 3-Iron (2004)
Seemingly homeless, Tae-suk is an urban hermit who spends his life in the apartments of people who are not present at the time. He eats from their refrigerators, takes selfies with their heirlooms, and pays for his stay by fixing broken apparatuses and washing their clothes. Eventually, he reaches Sun hwa’s house and thinks it is empty, due to her husband being away on business. He begins his routine, up until he discovers her beaten.
Subsequently, they decide to leave together and he introduces her to his peculiar way of life. Nevertheless, her husband is not eager to let her leave him.
This is probably Kim’s easiest film to watch, chiefly because he had a large budget in his hands, which he implemented in “furbishing” the production, particularly in contrast to his previous ones that were utterly low budget.
On the other hand, the film gives us a very extreme romance that entails all the characteristics of Kim’s cinema, with the two protagonists hardly uttering a word, and the utterly surrealistic last act, which is the film’s best part.
Lee Hyun-kyoon as Tae-suk and Lee Seung-yeon are magnificent in their silence, while Kwon Hyuk-ho gives an impressive performance as the “evil” husband.
3. Pieta (2012)
This specific production is Kim’s most celebrated one, netting a plethora of awards from festivals around the world, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and the Best Film in Blue Dragon Awards.
The script unfolds in Cheonggyecheon, a poor neighborhood in the centre of Seoul, which is full of little technical shops and is inhabited chiefly by petit bourgeois owners and workers. In this area lives Kang Do, a violent collector working for a local loan shark. He forces those who owe and cannot handle the payments to self-traumatize (or hurts them himself) in order for him to receive the compensation from their insurance company.
One day while working, he realizes that a middle-aged woman is permanently following him, leaving him meals in his house and even helping him with his victims. Eventually he discovers that the woman is actually his long-lost mother, who abandoned him when he was little, an action that shaped him as a person. Kang Do initially reacts violently towards her; however, gradually he becomes accustomed to Mi Son’s presence, a tactic that results in a number of sick occurrences.
Kim’s most commercial work is, however, as onerous as the rest of his filmography, a fact stressed by the usage of digital camera that makes the violent scenes seem even more realistic, virtually documentary-like. The standard message residing in the majority of Kim’s works also appears here: the world we live in is ugly and evil, and people are either monsters or victims.
Lee Jung Jin as Kang Do and Jo Min Su as Mi Son both astonish in their parts, sublimely presenting an onerous, Oedipal relationship.
Kim’s purpose was to shock the audience, a tactic that paid off since “Pieta” drew strong reactions from fans and critics all over the world, due to its themes and graphic depiction of violence.
2. Moebius (2013)
Kim’s most hideous production was so grotesque that the Korean Media Rating Board initially banned it completely before the director cut a number of scenes.
A spouse discovers her husband is having an affair and in order to reciprocate, she decides to castrate their only son and even eats the severed member before she runs away. The shamefaced father thus starts spending his time inquiring about penis transplants on the Internet, while the son, who is being bullied for his situation, ends up participating in a gangbang rape of his father’s former mistress.
Kim’s obvious purpose was to shock his audience and he definitely succeeded in doing so. Almost every onerous notion is present in “Moebius”, including self-torture, misogyny, and Oedipal inclinations. Adding to the sense of perversion erupting from the movie is the almost complete absence of dialogue, a tactic meant to force the spectator into focusing on the images.
1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)
The film features a simple story. A monk and his disciple are living together tending a secluded Buddhist temple on a lake. The student eventually abandons his teacher to follow a woman. After some years, he returns to the temple with the police on his heels. They arrest him. The monk dies. The disciple returns and reinvigorates the temple. A woman comes to the temple and leaves her baby there. The cycle starts anew. Each phase in the story is presented through a different season as described in the title.
Kim presents the Buddhist concept that physical and mental violence can be toned down through meditation that leads to enlightenment. The violence and the pessimism that define most of his films are nowhere to be found here, with Kim focusing on the beauty of life and the significance of Buddhism.
The film features magnificent scenes of natural scenery, which transform as the seasons pass, in one of Baek Dong-hyun’s best works. In particular, the lake is depicted in all its glory through the seasons, with the ones during the winter, when it becomes frozen, standing apart.
The sequences where Kim, who actually plays the adult monk, is training in martial arts on the icy water, are probably the most beautiful in the film. 10 JUNE 2017 FEATURES, FILM LISTS BY PANOS KOTZATHANASIS
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.