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Kim Ki-Duk: "Time"

KimKiDuk-Time5

"In the unborn world we heard the years hurtling past,
whirring like gears in a giant factory - time time time -
[...]
Bittersweet the sweat we tasted, the swollen tips we touched, the chafe of separate loins:
bittersweet the wine of one flesh they drank and drank."

Suji Kwock Kim, "Generation", Notes from the Divided Country.



 

As I was reading these lines from Suji Kwock Kim's beautiful collection of poetry, I recollected a somewhat problematic moment in my writing life: once upon a time, I wrote a 15-page essay on Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. The essay in its original form never made it into the pages of the magazine it was intended for, and did not survive a hard drive crash (the postmodern version of the autodafé). The point of this anecdote is this: there are a lot of things to talk about when we talk about Kim Ki-Duk, to parody the title of a book by Raymond Carver, but there is a strong possibility that this excess of talk to which the filmmaker seems to invite us, viewers, spectators, commentators, may end up being nothing more than superfetatory trash, meant to crash and/or burn from the start.

 

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNevertheless, Kim Ki-Duk's cinema invites us to speak, think, find fault or inspiration with and in what he shows and what he does not, somewhere between beauty and horror, serenity and brutality. And Time, his thirteenth film, is no exception to the rule.

A compelling meditation on what I can only call, for lack of a better expression, temps vécu (roughly speaking, time as the experience of a subjective passing), the film inspired the following thoughts:

Kim Ki-Duk's films represent both a margin and a polar space. A margin because his work is located far, at the fringe of the Korean industry. It is outside the central space that mainstream cinema occupies in popular culture which organizes behaviors and constructs a particular type of mass consumption. It is also a polar space, not because his films are freezing cold (which they can be, at least metaphorically), but because even at the limit where they were pushed by his peers, his critics, part of his audience, and himself, they orient reflection, and also, disorients usual, conventional perspectives on social phenomena that revolve, among other things that hurt or kill, around the (mis)treatment of the female body as a problematic object of desire (teenage prostitution in Samaria, Birdcage Inn or Bad Guy, plastic surgery in Time, for example).


Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThis persistent dimension of Kim Ki-Duk's films invariably seems to bring out the most extreme moral responses from a significant number of viewers, thus revealing the thin line that runs between ethics and aesthetics in the reception of his work. His borderline representations of social/sexual oppression have earned the filmmaker his reputation of a male chauvinistic, uncouth monster, especially in Korea. In addition to his, Kim Ki-Duk is often dismissed by his detractors as a pretentious “arthouse-film director”. But that is not exactly true. If anything, his films qualify as “filmed art”, rather than “art films”. The extent to which art is embedded in his work goes indeed way beyond mere gadgetry and decorative gimmicks (as is sometimes suggested) and forms a visual core on which the storylines depend. In Time, the narrative always comes back to the park-museum of Baemigumi, on the island of Mo, about 30 miles away from Seoul, where the sculptures of Lee Il-ho represent the stages of love in general, and of the lovers of the film in particular. The whole film, in one sense, is the story of a repeated return to the static, unchanging figures, silent witnesses of the shifting states of the love affair. Thus viewed, the sentimental seasons that the characters go through almost appear as incidental to the hypersymbolic artistic landscape at their core. This structural restraint (that one can hardly call a device, but is perhaps a strategy) is a trait commonly found in Kim Ki-Duk's work.



Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAs a result, his films often feel like series of sequences sewn into a whole by a tenuous narrative thread. In the case of Time, the stitching line goes like this: a young woman, Seh-hee has been passionately in love with Ji-Woo (Ha Jung Woo, The Unforgiven) for years, but time has eroded their relationship into a slightly unpleasant affair marked by routine and sexual debacle. Convinced of her inadequacy as an object of desire, and unable to get over her jealousy, she resorts to plastic surgery to change her face, and disappears from the life of her boyfriend. Ji-woo after a few non sequitur encounters with various women and six months of self-pity, meets See-hee (Sung Hyun-Ah, Woman is the Future of Man) a strangely familiar-looking waitress, at the cafe he patronizes. Then, as is usual in a Kim Ki-Duk film, things go from wrong to worse.


Time - Korean posterBreaking with his formal rule of silence, Kim Ki-Duk has conceded here an unusual amount of room for the dialogues. But if speech is regained, there is still a sense of loss (of meaning, of consistency) in the dramatic scenes, which paradoxically accentuates their impact. The loss tightens the action and exacerbates the expressions of the couple, who oscillate, outside psychological norms, in the narrow margin between desperation and theatrical hysteria (not a word one should use lightly when speaking about a director accused of being “outrageously misogynistic”), causing as much violence to each other as they do to themselves. As Seh-Hee feels she failed to be accepted for what she is (“"the same boring face,” she dejectedly says to her lover) , she has this very face cut into another's, in an intensely clinical and critical moment when her flesh becomes a malleable mask, artistic material for the recreation of her self.

In this respect, even though superficially, the film is about Korean society's obsession with physical beauty, now turned into a major business by the plastic surgery boom, it is far from delving into sociological critique ground and actually deals with the metaphysical violence linked to the quest for identity.

If these characters are unable to find each other, if they go to the same places, the same café, the same sculpture garden over and over again, it is because in a way, they are less living beings than ghosts. All they can do is haunt and pass. They cannot really be there, let alone be together. Identity, being exclusively one's self, and not another, is an impossibility for them. They can only exist in passing, as ciphers, in the time that has always already passed, which is the only thing they can give to each other: that is to say, the failure to meet each other's needs and be adequate as perennial beings. This gift of vulnerability, of themselves as failed humans, make up the quasi- tangible beauty of Kim Ki-Duk's 13th film.


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