Ki-duk Kim  

An uncompromising, independent, Korean film-maker who often straddles the border between transgressive shock and meaningful, provocative art. He can somehow combine ethereal beauty with brutality, vicious human behaviour with deeply flawed human warmth, and his movies can somehow be subtle and crude at the same time, with heavy-handed symbolism laid out clearly but still uncovering subtle difficulties when it comes to grasping the underlying meaning. His movies are, for the most part, parables. They can be taken at face-value but that would be like taking an adaptation of the Emperor's New Clothes literally. It would make sense but only in an absurd way. In other words, his movies explore ideas untainted by commercial concerns and he takes these explorations to their extreme conclusions - a man after my own heart. Kim doesn't intellectually masturbate like many art-film-makers, but takes a poetic idea, purifies it, develops its various aspects, runs with it and converts it into an uncompromising movie, usually setting it in provocative and twisted circumstances. Sometimes this works beautifully (e.g. 'The Isle'), other times it falls apart under confusing and half-baked messages (e.g. 'Samaria'). And sometimes he just uses very unusual characters and almost-but-not-quite-surreal storytelling to create very unconventionally beautiful and immensely memorable movies, as in his two masterpieces '3-Iron' and 'Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring'. He also make use of fantasy and magical realism, as in the flawed movie 'Dream' where a woman finds that she is acting out what a man dreams. He also directs more conventional, sometimes artsy, movies about violence and cruel guys, and also rich character studies and dramas (such as the superb 'Birdcage Inn'). In a world of cookie-cutter movies, every one of his creations is utterly unique and, even when they don't work, they are fascinating, unpredictable and creative. Other trademarks include the use of action, violence or subtle behaviour to communicate, silent lead characters, and the emergence of warmth, humanity and emotion out of reprehensible morals and cruel behaviour. This page reviews the parable in Kim's most extreme movies. The rest are left to the viewer to explore. Died in 2020.


Isle, The  
An artistic, shocking love story that disturbed audiences and confused critics, most of which couldn't see beyond the disturbing images. A mute girl maintains a fishing resort where people stay in floating mini-houses while fishing, resting and using prostitutes. She services them in any way she can in order to make ends meet but the crude clientele annoy her often, forcing her at times to take revenge. Along comes a brooding, suicidal client with a dark past. Will they connect through their pain or treat each other like animals? Full of beautiful scenery, peaceful waters and rain contrasted with beastly behaviour, poetically breathtaking symbolism, animalistic sex and behaviour, and notorious for its faint-inducing scenes involving fish-hooks. But put it all together, and you have a dark love story and metaphor about abuse that passes on between people, islands of individuals that connect only through pain and sex, metaphors involving fishing lost people out of the waters of brooding depression, the woman as a life-giving link between islands of men who can't swim without her, a boat that everyone is dependent on, a house-island metaphorically converted into a boat, and so on, leading to a surreal-symbolic ending of the woman as home. Sometimes the scenes feel too forced in their disturbing and violent content for the movie's sake which is otherwise a darkly beautiful, gripping, poetic piece. Unforgettable.

Probably Kim Ki-Duk's masterpiece. At first glance, this is not a surreal movie per-se despite very light touches of magical-realism that slip through your fingers like mist. But if you dig into it, you will find layers of extremely subtle symbolism that may be taken, if you are so inclined, as a surreal exploration of the delicate human psyche and ghostly humanity that we can find within ourselves. At the surface, this is a story about a highly unusual young man who is the most sensitive and polite thief on the planet. The only thing he steals is snippets of other people's lives and some food. He breaks in to people's houses while they are away, stays the night and lives in their house, becomes part of the family for a night, fixes machinery that is broken, does their laundry, and neatly cleans up after himself. When he breaks into the house of a rich abusive man and his abused wife who has curled into herself like a ball, he connects with her soul. Ugly violence and behaviour contrast with quiet inner life and small moments of happiness, creating tension and explosive, desperate violence from the beastly human that lives only on the outside. After which the young man develops some truly quiet and ghostly skills, controlling his very shadow to live within other worthwhile people, and always just beyond the reach of the rest, wearing them like clothes. Delicate, beautiful and magical.

Of Some Interest

Address Unknown  
Another Kim Ki-Duk creation, but this time unrelentingly brutal and bleak without the typical poetry, subtlety and thought. This is a dense portrayal of several disturbed, neurotic, insane, perverted or violent Korean characters under the shadow of the US presence in South Korea. One woman is insane after being abandoned by an American soldier with an angry and violent son whom everyone hates for being a half-breed. There's a man who lives off killing people's dogs and selling their meat, a girl who got shot in the eye by her brat brother and who has a perverted relationship with her puppy, locals get drugs and porn from the crude Americans, etc. The theme, albeit a weak one, seems to be about cruelty linked to foreign interference, war and a lost modern society after a civil war. The movie is typically gripping and interesting with several striking scenes, but what sinks this one is the terrible acting by the Americans and the over-the-top and forced feel of the events and characters.

Bad Guy  
Possibly Kim's most difficult and impenetrable work. A rough 'bad guy' from the street becomes obsessed over an innocent upper-class woman who scorns him on a public bench. He cons her into a hard situation then uses it to force her into prostitution, watching her through a one-way mirror while she is raped and humiliated in order to pay her debts. A twisted, violent relationship is formed where he both protects her with his life and keeps her in servitude, and she grows dependent and even amorous. Perhaps it's just me but I found it impossible to penetrate this one. It seems to be saying something about social classes and male-female relationships and roles, but the messages are mixed. Kim himself said this movie was about people forced into social classes based on superficialities and that this confuses and angers him, thus inspiring this movie. A similar theme was covered by Kim's superior but flawed early work: Crocodile.

Bow, The  
An old man adopts a lost young girl on his fishing boat, raises her, and plans to marry her as soon as she comes of age. They show gentle love and a soulful relationship without words, despite the objectionable morality of such a setup. His fishing clients rock the boat with their flirtations and bad behaviour, but even more so when a gentle young man captures the heart of the virginal and innocent girl, and makes plans to take her away from the old man who has obviously stopped having her best interests at heart. That's the story at the simplest level. But then there are the many elements of mysticism and symbolism, which could be wrongly taken as purely spiritual metaphor, but I see it as a both fascinating and objectionable human story with a single element of parable: The bow. The bow is the expression of his emotions. He uses it to play music for her and show his affection, and also to jealously drive away potential competition by using it to shoot arrows at them. They communicate through it, she plays with it sometimes, its beauty and violence express his purity and his waywardness respectively, and he even uses it to see into people's futures by shooting it almost through her at a picture of Buddha behind her. Thus, in the surreal ending, the bow serves as an ultimately pure joining between souls, leading to a ridiculous, bizarre but symbolic sex act and orgasm. In other words, yet another challenging Kim Ki-duk creation that finds beauty in twisted morals and strange parables, only this time it's just a bit too gratuitously objectionable and crude in its symbolism.

Although this is pretty much a fantasy movie rather than anything surreal, it contains more of Kim's trademark not-quite-real strangeness, mystical elements, and a symbolic ending. It is also the movie that broke him for a few years when an actress almost died, after which he went into a self-imposed isolation and exile. The story involves a man who strongly misses his ex-girlfriend, and a woman who hates her ex, both are strangers but living perfectly opposite emotional lives. One day they somehow link, and anything that he dreams, she performs in her real life. This creates many complications as she visits her ex to express his longings. Unfortunately, this is not Kim's best work, and although it features people that seem to try to come to terms with their strange new life in realistic ways, they behave extremely irrationally, causing a contradictory tone in their characters. The movie also features many ridiculous scenes of forced sleep deprivation that are so over-the-top that they're silly. The magical ending is poetic, though.

Human, Space, Time and Human  
Although Kim was to make one more movie after this one, this is his last extreme movie before he died suddenly due to the pandemic. A ship has been used many times before as a micro-cosmos of human civilization, exploring humanity in a smaller self-contained pressure-cooker environment. But nobody has taken this trope as far as Kim takes it in this wild and grippingly dark parable of a movie. Unfortunately, Kim has been in a completely dark place and all last eight of his movies have been only cruel and utterly pessimistic ever since 'Amen', which he made after a personal breakdown. This one is a very far, far cry from the hope and gentleness of 'Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring'. A group of people embark on a voyage on a decrepit battle-ship, including a politician, mafia-thugs, ship authority and military types, whores, and a whole lot of regular people. The obvious group of people take over, and it is rape and murder right from the start. But then they find themselves isolated in a bizarre fantasy twist that makes everything deteriorate even faster. Except there's a mute mysterious old man on the ship with a plan of his own. The Buddhist cycle of life takes on a very cruel, bestial and gruesome aspect here, as humans literally serve as fodder in many ways. There is no respite from nature's circle, with the cruelty, refuse and bodies of humans getting recycled for the next bloom of (cruel) life. Who cares about a nature or life that brings only bleak cruelty, Kim?

When Kim is in one of his transgressive-provocateur moods and decides to do a heavily Freudian parable, audiences had better brace themselves. On the surface, this is a movie about a very, very dysfunctional family with a cheating husband, furiously jealous mother, and a son that gets caught in the middle. There is lots of brutal castration, jealousy, guilt by all three family members over matters of the penis, Oedipal complications that would give even Freud a headache, masochistic sex as an emasculated solution for a lack of penis and manhood, rape, penis replacements, and so on. To tell how all these elements develop would be to ruin the endless twists and turns of the movie. And yet all the twists are driven by a disturbingly logical and uncompromising progression. Some scenes are so transgressively inevitable, twisted, and insanely logical, they made me laugh. In addition, Kim also makes all of his characters silent this time, and finds a way out of Freud's mess via Buddhism. Truly a one-of-a-kind extreme provocation.


Ki-duk Kim does a torture movie filled with political provocations and meanings. Although the torture scenes are not exploitative and overly graphic, it's the constant and repetitive violence throughout the movie that makes this one a chore to sit through. Although Kim has made plenty of ruthlessly cruel movies before, he usually balances it out with normal characters and a human angle, but in this one, everyone seems to be abusing everyone, and for no particular reason other than to make an allegory of a system run by fear and violence. There's an officially sanctioned assassination of a young girl which is never explained. There's a group of vengeful idealists kidnapping every member of the team that performed the assassination, from the lowest soldier to the highest-ranking generals. And there's the internal strife and breakouts of anger and violence amongst the idealists as they argue on how far they should take their justice, as well as with their friends and spouses, and there's even a closed loop of violence from the people they kidnap and torture. Insights are discussed on how a system of fear and control works and everybody's role within this system, but these are pretty obvious and repetitive, which is why I didn't enjoy this one at all.

Kim has frequently featured extremely brutal and bestial male characters progressing through some kind of character arc (even in Crocodile, his first film), and this is another of those films, albeit not quite as brutal as a couple of his earlier movies (Bad Guy). However, and disappointingly, he seems to have hopped on the Korean bandwagon here of making an elaborate and cruel revenge film, and this movie doesn't feature any of his usual symbolism or magical touches from his better middle period. In other words, the movie is brutal and bleak, and that's all one is going to get from it. However, two additional flaws made the movie a tiresome watch for me: Kim isn't the most subtle director, but he can be a little subtle when he wants, and his cruder, heavy-handed provocateur side on display here is not his best side. In addition, the character arc here is simply too extreme to be believable. The movie is about a ruthless and brutal loan shark, who collects money from deadbeats by permanently crippling them to collect their insurance, coldly calculating the exact damage against their debts. When an older woman appears in his life claiming to be his mother, his isolated cruel world is soon turned upside down. The most disturbing scenes are not the violence he inflicts on his victims, but the warped incestuous and cannibalistic tests that he puts the woman through. As the persistent woman moves in with him to try to fix him, he fears that one of his ex-victims will take revenge, and the tension grows. Features another bizarre Kim ending, but most of this movie is just tiresomely bleak and cruel with no payoff.

1999- by The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre Table of Contents