Film lead: Kim Ki-duk is unrepentant

The unparalleled success of hislatest twisted tale has emboldened Korean director Kim Ki-duk tokeep challenging audiences, writes Andrew Salmon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 2:27pm

Kim Ki-duk, winner of the Golden Lion for his savage morality tale Pieta at this year's Venice Film Festival, is in a triumphant mood - and who can blame him?

The eccentric South Korean screenwriter and director - who lives and works in a converted van on a hillside - is internationally known for the shocking themes and scenes of his films. But while the 51-year-old auteur is a favourite on the international festival circuit, he has long been a prophet without honour in his home country, unable to secure funding or distribution for his controversial works.

The situation has changed in recent months. In addition to having landed Kim a more prestigious award than anything other South Korean filmmakers have laid hands on - former culture minister Lee Chang-dong comes closest by winning the Fipresci Prize, Signis Award and special director's nod for Oasis (2002) in Venice - Pieta has been named South Korea's official Academy Award entry for the best foreign language film Oscar next year.

And with his latest film luring the kind of audience numbers usually enjoyed only by the thrillers, actioners and romantic comedies that are staples of the South Korean film industry, Kim has said he will continue on his unconventional path - while taking a swipe at the mainstream industry.

"Although critics say it is less brutal than many of Kim's other films [ Pieta] still features mutilation, sexual violence and cannibalism as the loan shark feeds the woman his own flesh and rapes her," Reuters reports, and Indiewire critic Eric Kohn says the film is "a curiously engaging and wickedly twisted tale of crime and punishment", and headlined the review, "… not your average crime movie".

That is an understatement.

The closing film of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Pieta centres on a debt collector (played by Lee Jung-jin), known among the impoverished inhabitants of the Seoul industrial slum upon whom he preys as "The Devil". He has a sadistically creative way of getting his money: he forces his victims to take out industrial accident insurance, shoves them into their own machinery and pockets the premiums, leaving them mangled and hopeless. Then, one day, a woman (Cho Min-soo) appears, claiming to be his mother.

Despite the shocking elements, Kim argues that his themes are universal. "The film is about money - look at the pain money brings people, even regular average people. On the surface it looks like a revenge tale, but it is more about family. There is brutality, there is violence, and there is forgiveness; it is important to me that these elements hang in the balance."

Redemption is another theme: The film's title - "pieta" means "pity" in Italian - is derived from Renaissance artist Michelangelo's sculptural masterpiece, housed in St Peter's Basilica, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the body of her son, Jesus Christ.

Religion, of course, was central to Kim's previously most celebrated work, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), which covers the life of a Buddhist monk who progresses from torturing animals when he was a young novice to murdering a woman later in his life. He achieves redemption, but finds his apprentice trapped in the same cycle.

Kim is no stranger to controversy. In his most notorious film, The Isle (2000), a woman attempts suicide by swallowing a string of fish hooks; later, a prostitute inserts hooks into her vagina, via which she is reeled in by a fisherman. These scenes reportedly made some viewers pass out.

Yet Kim claims he does not set out to shock. "Most of my scenes you can get from the 9 o'clock news or CNN, I don't do it to shock people, my films are like a condensed version of the news," he says. "Society has tensions, we hurt each other. My films do bother people, but they are about trust or love - is that not a full message?"

Kim's challenging films normally attract low audience numbers in South Korea. Pieta, unusually, has given the filmmaker - who made it on a shoestring budget of just US$100,000 - a profit of US$2 million, and has drawn 500,000 viewers, of whom Kim says, "I am so appreciative."

While some might say his customary low viewership is due to the challenging nature of his films, Kim alleges that in South Korea, he, and other non-mainstream directors, are barred from cinemas by mainstream production companies which own the big theatre chains.

The multiplexes "will not provide proper allocation for minor movies or movies that do not have any connection to the owners of the theatres," he says. "I am ashamed that there is this monopoly in [South] Korea, even in the US there is not this vertical integration of production and distribution."

Yet he defiantly refuses to change his style, even though he has been approached to make more commercial films, he says.

"Directors like myself are not recognised for our true value, it is not right for me to get out of my own world due to stimulus from outside," Kim says. "I don't care about numbers, so I don't think I'll ever produce a so-called entertaining movie, I'll continue to make the kind of movies I have - if I can throw out a question and provide an opening, that is where I am at."

Pieta , HK Asian Film Festival, tonight,7.40pm, 7.50pm, Broadway Cinematheque; Tue, 9.50pm, Broadway The One. On general release in Feb 2013