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Cruel Beauty: The Cinema of Kim Ki-Duk

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After all of the recent hullabaloo regarding the incestuous Moebius, we thought it would be a hell of a lot of fun to visit its infamous filmmaker, Kim Ki-duk, his past controversies, and some of his films that provide a wonderful, visceral, viewing experience.

While Kim’s films are not as gore-tastic as what us horror freaks might be used to, they are hauntingly gorgeous, wild pieces of art. In Korea, and abroad, he is notorious for violent, and sexual, themes within his work. Also known for talking loudly, and strongly, against the state of the Korean film industry, Kim is a proud outsider in his home country. Creating films that are fucking difficult to watch, Kim’s films tend to circulate the globe quicker than they do back home.

Previously an artist, a traveller, and marginalized for most of his life, Kim constructs characters that use violence as their only means of expression. These characters are (mostly) silent, making the violence that they resort to feel that much more real, extreme, and severe. Kim’s portrayal of violence is risky. Some of his scenes are so shocking that there have been reports of critics fainting, people walking out of the cinema, and there have been cuts upon distribution of his more extreme work, such as his infamous flick, The Isle.


5The Isle (2000)The Isle is a quease-inducing, haunting, shocking, mind-fuck of a contribution to Korean cinema. While it may incite some nausea amongst the more fragile of viewers, the film is absolutely gorgeous in its cinematography, with evocative and extreme imagery. Set in a small and isolated fishing resort, The Isle documents the lives of fishermen, and a woman, Hee-jin, who sells bait, ferries people across to the little coloured houses, and (sometimes) sells her body.

A hell of a lot of controversy has surrounded the film for its uses of animal cruelty. The most notorious scene is one where a poor fishy, struggling to escape, is subjected to having bits of its flesh cut away. The fish is then thrown back into the water, where it swims away, frantic, while the characters chow down. Kim confirms that such scenes are very much real, but defends them, insisting that the fish were cooked and eaten by cast, and crew, behind the scenes, and it is no different to catching fish outside of a film set.

Aside from the above, there are many more shocking scenes contained within The Isle. A few of which involve fish hooks in the most horrific ways possible, in ways so graphic that there are stories of critics fainting at the Venice International Film Festival, and in the lobby of the film’s press screening for the lead up to the New York Korean Film Festival. I won’t go into a description of these scenes (Frankly, even thinking about it makes me feel nauseous), but they were heavy enough for disclaimers to be posted around the New York Korean Film Fest, advising viewers to “attend at your own risk.” In fact, come to think of it, I’d like to offer the same advice.


4Real Fiction (2000)

Epically shot in 200 minutes non-stop, with no re-takes, Real Fiction follows an artist, only known in the credits as “I”, while he hunts down and kills all of the people who have wronged him. It is uncertain whether his victims are real, or imaginary. The film was shot with the use of two DV camcorders and ten 35mm cameras, and is action-packed from the very get go. The murders are badass, rage fuelled and realistic, though perhaps not the confronting violence that defines Kim’s other works. The killer-slash-artist, “I” initiates his murderous rampage in a park, before returning to the same location by the end of the flick, where the cameras subsequently run out of film. Kim edited the footage down by half, to 86 minutes, but all the slayings still feel very frickin’ real, and a lil’ confronting. Sure, the violence is not quite as stylized as it could be (come on guys, we are running in real-time here!), but the acting is superb, almost completely flawless. Even for Kim’s ambition, and experimentation alone, Real Fiction is a film worthy of a look-see.



Released a year after The Isle, Bad Guy depicts a story about a brute who, after forcibly kissing and being turned down by a college student, forces her into prostitution at his brothel. Manipulative, and confronting, I’d have to say that this narrative is Kim Ki-duk’s darkest. The nauseating pimp observes Sun-hwa through a secret mirror as she is forced to submit to his clients. Slowly, the pimp begins to feel protective, and ‘in love’ with her. Meanwhile, Sun-hwa is ruled by various abuses (both of the physical and emotional sort) that are highly confronting, and unsettling. The relationship that develops between the two characters is urged on by carnal desire, coupled with abuse and voyeurism. An interesting study into the darker side of humanity, Bad Guy also forces us to embrace death: in particular, a suduicide by

drowning. Harrowing, challenging and… well, traumatizing, I’d suggest having a crappy comedy on backup after viewing this film. Something that will lighten the mood a little… or a lot…

 2Address Unknown (2001)

 Set during the Cold War, Address Unknown runs as an allegory for the current Korean social and political landscapes. I am going to come clean and admit that well yes, this film is slow, almost agonizingly so. But, by the finish I can assure you will be glad to have included this in your ‘to view’ lists. Kim Kim propels us into a small South Korean town that hosts a U.S. military base, where we witness the lives of the townspeople, one who is a half-Korean, half-American teenager, absolutely sick of being ostracized by Koreans and Americans alike. Depictions of violence in this film are extraordinary, with animals and women victimized and hurt by absolute brutes. There is one scene that is particularly difficult to watch, where the aforementioned teenager tries to cut a tattoo off his Mother’s breast, and causes all sorts of destruction against the people that have wronged him. Some of the more difficult scenes to watch are those where dogs are captured, hung and sold as meat to the townspeople.


13-Iron (2004)

Two words: golf clubs! 3-Iron is the tale of a drifter, Tae-suk, who breaks into a strangers’ house whilst they are away on holiday. One day, he fucks it up and breaks into a home that is concealing an abused housewife, Sun-hwa. I thought it an interesting note that this is the same name used for the abused college student in Bad Guy. But, back to 3-Iron. Eventually the day comes where Sun-hwa decides to leave her home and drift alongside Tae-suk. There is a spectacular scene where Tae-suk attacks the abusive husband by smashing some golf balls into his face. After the lovebirds run away they spend their days fixing up broken things in people’s homes, practicing golf in the park, and causing a bit of trouble across town. Meanwhile, the husband is hunting the couple, ready for vengeance. There is a bit of a showdown and an excruciating display that consists of golf balls, yet again. I still wince at the thought!

Kim’s films are extreme, they are violent, and they are controversial. However, there is always an injection of such harrowing beauty that temporarily stuns, and draws us in completely… Hook, line, and sinker!




About the author: Admin

Monster Pictures is a Melbourne-based distribution / production company dedicated to delivering the most energetic, unique, creative, innovative, provocative, bizarre, frightening, challenging, surreal, offbeat, absurd, twisted, demented, raunchy, cinema in the world today.

1 Comment

  1. AB says:

    The pic labelled as #5 (The Isle) is actually from “Birdcage Inn”, one of Kim’s most underrated and beautiful films.
    The MIFF retrospective of his films back in 2002 was a great experience. Introducing “Bad Guy” – and my memory of the translation may not be 100% spot on here – Kim told the audience “If you walk out the film, you are a beautiful person. If you stay to the end, you are an even more beautiful person.” Sums it up pretty well 🙂

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