This is my first Kim Ki-Duk film and I wasn't really sure what to expect. The only time I've really seen his name was attached to a film that's reached the IMDB Top 250 with the clumsy title of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. I have two further films of his on my DVR, all courtesy of the Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia series, and they're going to be fascinating viewing after this. It's no Asian horror film, but it fits the extreme tag nicely.
We open with someone who looks like a tough guy peoplewatching in the street. He fixates on a young lady sitting on a bench and even though her boyfriend quickly appears, he seizes her head and plants a long kiss on her lips, not stopping even while a crowd gathers and her boyfriend attacks him with a nearby rubbish bin. When she demands an apology he refuses and ends up in a fight with some soldiers instead. He's the bad guy of the title, Han-ki and even though he's Korean he looks unfortunately like Eminem, or some Oriental/Mexican version.
She's Kim Sun-hwa and her slapping his face and spitting in it as he's forced to apologise by the soldiers comes back to bite her on the ass big time. He's someone of authority in the criminal underground, though I have no clue how the pimp hierarchy works, and he quickly engineers a scheme to manoeuvre her into the red light district. What seems weirdest is that he doesn't do this to have her for himself, at least physically. It's rather so that he can watch her through a one way mirror and simply be around her. Whether it's a sexual thing on his part or a control thing or a sadistic thing is open to question.
Kim Ki-Duk, who was the writer as well as the director, doesn't leave it particularly clear cut. Han-ki is very clearly a dangerous and manipulative man and while he's the chief protagonist, he's far from the hero. However he appears to have genuine feelings for Sun-hwa, often finds it painful to watch her and while he's violent to everyone else around him refuses to get violent with her, even when she attacks him or vomits down him. It's a very strange relationship, that's for sure, and the only time he can get remotely close is when he's blind drunk and even then he's not looking for sex.
What Kim Ki-Duk was trying to tell us, I really don't know. Maybe he's trying to show us that bad guys have good sides (Han-ki does other good deeds that don't seem to bring him any reward), or that when they discover something positive in their life they really have no clue how to cope with such a thing. The other really intriguing thing is that while Han-ki is certainly the focus of the story, he doesn't speak until the very end of the movie. The film isn't silent, just him, but there's no explanation to why he has no voice: whether he's really dumb or there was some accident or it was a product of violence, or whether he simply chooses not to speak. He doesn't seem to be retarded, except emotionally. There is a scar on his throat but it's never explained.
At the same time he doesn't give us Sun-hwa the clear cut victim. It's patently obvious that she doesn't deserve what she's forced into and that she's far more virtuous than anyone else we see in the film, but it's also notable that Han-ki's scheme to get her into prostitution only works because of her own dark side, reliant on her being an opportunist and a thief. At the end of the day, this is a fascinating, powerful and visually magnetic film. It's thought-provoking for sure, but I still don't know what it's really about. If Kim Ki-Duk was just trying to set us up for all sorts of interpretations then to shoot down each and every one of them, he did a bang up job of it.
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|I'm also driving the highway to Cinematic Hell for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.|
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