South Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk has been a critically acclaimed filmmaker for almost as long as he’s been a controversial one. From his debut in 1996 with Crocodile to 2008’s Dream he made fifteen films of varying quality and similar themes usually populated by violent loners searching for love and acceptance in the worst ways possible. Their journeys often included both inward and outward-facing acts of brutality, and they rarely spared the fairer sex from the abuse. It’s that last bit that led to Kim being labeled on more than one occasion as an unrepentant misogynist.
For a director averaging more than a film a year his subsequent three year absence from cinema following Dream left many people, both fans and detractors, wondering as to the reason. Had he quit the movies due to their poor reception in his home country? Had he finally run out of rage, emotion or ideas? Had he moved to Hollywood to pursue a gig on the next Hunger Games sequel?
It turns out to be none of the above. Kim returned to theaters this year with a documentary of sorts called Arirang. (He also returned to Cannes and left with the Un Certain Regard award.) Written, directed, produced, edited, lit, shot and catered by Kim, and featuring nobody but Kim, the film acts as an explanation of his sabbatical and a look into his mind, heart and occasionally tortured soul. Exactly how much of it is the truth though may be up for debate…
“I hate to see you like this.”
Arirang opens with Kim taking a shit on a hillside. It’s neither graphic nor meant to shock, but the emptying of his bowels comes as a precursor to the emptying of his soul. (It may also leave viewers wondering as to the level of BS to come.) He moves about his small, mountain-top cabin tinkering with machines, operating a backhoe and staring off into the distance before settling down each night into a tent in his living room. Ten minutes into the film he starts speaking directly to the camera.
And to himself.
The catalyst for his departure from film-making was an equipment malfunction on the set of his last movie that resulted in the near-death of an actress. Kim himself saved her life, but the guilt over what happened and what could have happened weighed on him heavily. The admission of that incident leads to an outpouring of regrets and acknowledged whining, and eventually Kim begins toying with philosophical musings on his success and that of his Assistant Directors who left him for bigger budgets and careers.
The film alternates between Kim asking and answering his own questions into the camera and shots of him simply living his solitary life high above the nearest town. He berates himself then states proudly that people all around the globe are eagerly awaiting his next film, he spends time making coffee and cooking his fish, and he comments on his own strong characters to say that if they could see him now they’d feel sorry for him. He also answers the door a few times after hearing a knock in the middle of the night. There’s never anyone waiting on the other side.
Arirang is, by Kim’s own admission during the film, as much of a drama as it is a documentary. Actors can cry on cue, editing can be used to manipulate viewers and a director can’t help but always aim for the most dramatic effect. Ultimately the truth isn’t what matters most here, a point driven home by certain events in the film’s final fifteen minutes. Instead, what matters is that one of Korea’s finer directors, the man behind one of cinema’s most romantic but little-seen films (3-Iron), is ready to call ‘Action!’ once again.