"The Structure of Human Life": Kim Ki-duk

underdog's picture

By Jonathan Marlow

Originally published May 2, 2005

"Instead of learning how to make films, I've learned to live life."

Besides the general buzz in the air, there are a few more concrete ways you can tell when a certain genre or national cinema has become, to put it curtly, hot. For one, the press begins to say so, but more formally, respected magazines and journals start devoting special issues or sections to a particular wave, none perhaps more decisively than Film Comment. Throughout the magazine's history, editors have canonized certain moments in film history with issues such as the one in the 70s examining the sudden surge of sexually explicit imagery on the screen, or more recently, issues devoted to Hong Kong (1998) and Bollywood (2002; and both of those projects were overseen by David Chute, by the way) and, most recently, Korean cinema (November / December 2004).

Which brings us to the second sign: Controversy. It can range from arguments over which films and which directors really represent the cream of the new crop all the way to outright backlash. Yes, Hong Kong action flicks are exciting and colorful, the naysayers argued a few years ago, but ultimately, they're all the same. Bollywood? Exciting and colorful, but... all the same. With Korean cinema, the naysaying is more scattered and varied because no one could argue that, say, Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong or Bong Jun-ho and Hong Sang-soo are making the same sort of films.

Rather than a full-fledged backlash, an across-the-board sorting is going on: Which filmmakers truly represent the best of current Korean cinema? When Park won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year for Oldboy, many cheered; some did not. Most prominently, Manohla Dargis, who's raved enthusiastically about Hong's Power of the Kangwon Province, for example, aimed in the pages of the New York Times to pull Park down a few notches. But at least Dargis was civil and serious about her argument; Rex Reed, writing in the New York Observer, was not. His borderline racist remarks about Koreans' taste in films and food stirred a flurry of protest in blogs, online forums and the Village Voice and, just last week, offered a backhanded apology.

But that swirl of controversy was kicked up by a single film. The case of Kim Ki-duk is far more serious thanks to the widely regarded British critic and programmer Tony Rayns, who attacked Kim's entire oeuvre in the very issue of Film Comment that would cement reputations of various Korean filmmakers in the west for possibly years to come. Those who admire Kim's work reacted immediately and furiously, beginning with Singapore-based writer and artist Ben Slater and spilling over into one of the most lively debates to hits the boards at Koreanfilm.org in quite a while.

The debate didn't end there, though. Chuck Stephens, who edited that special section in Film Comment, rallied to Rayns's defense - and hence, to the offense against Kim as well - in Cinema Scope earlier this year, intensifying the clash between those who, like the programmers of the major festivals in Berlin, Venice, and this year, Cannes, find a fresh, vigorous and vital creativity in Kim's films and those who, well, don't.

Ultimately, of course, it's audiences, not critics, who forge canons and pecking orders. But in Kim's case, audiences haven't had much of a chance to decide, with only two very different films - The Isle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring - immediately available to go by. [Update: That's about to change. Samaritan Girl, Bad Guy and 3-Iron -- and now The Bow -- are all now out on DVD in this country. --ed.]

3-Iron screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it was there, with the help of translator Ju Hui Judy Jan, that Jonathan Marlow spoke with the director about, among other things, how the "Kim Ki-duk style" plays in the US. - David Hudson

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