“If someone had died because of the ideas and characters that I had created, it would have been terrible,” Kim Ki-Duk reflected about his work in the documentary Arirang (2011) as he was on a three-year hiatus in a mountain far away from his film sets. The maverick film-maker had a near-fatal accident on the sets of his 16th film Dream, which could have killed his actress.
Arirang was a monologue that carries reflections about the accident and his film-making process. He shot the documentary for three years from 2008 and released it in 2011. It bagged the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw who was part of the jury, wrote that the selection was “bound to exasperate and indeed infuriate as many people as it enthrals” because the startling, fascinating and bizarre film is in some ways the strangest arthouse event of the year.
Such was Kim’s charisma as a film-maker that everything he touched turned into gold. His own analysis of the successes he had till hitting a nervous breakdown makes the monologue in Arirang engaging. As Kim says in the film, actors really like cruel and explosive roles instead of roles of angels who say good things and wonders why he lacks the animal instinct that all his successful characters possess.
Soon after he finished filming his confessions in Arirang, Kim Ki-Duk was back with a bang in the Venice Film Festival in 2012.
He premiered his incestuous feature Pieta, which means piety or compassion, incidentally named after a subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. It graphically narrates the shocking Oedipal relationship between a brutal debt collector and a woman who claimed to be his biological mother. The film, which shocked the audience, went on to bag the Golden Lion prize at Venice. The tale's moral complexity was summed up in one scene in which the protagonist asks her, "I came out of here? Can I go back in?" when he molests her.
The following year, Kim took the shock value that he had created with Pieta to almost insane levels with a wordless film Moebius (2013).
The dark thriller without a single spoken word laced with genital mutilation, castration and sadomasochism hooked the audience onto the screen with its visual storytelling and vivid anticipation.
The opening 15 minutes of the film set the stage for the idiosyncratic tale. We see a psychotic woman chopping off her husband’s genitals as revenge for his infidelity. In the fight that ensues, she ends up doing the act to their teenage son and swallows the part she has chopped off. The guilt-ridden father drags him to the hospital and makes an attempt to donate his own organ for a genital transplant.
Violence and the ordinariness of it were traits that Kim nurtured and experimented with in his films to great success. Feminists termed the sexual violence dangerous penis fascism.
Animal rights activists lamented the cruelty to animals, which Kim confessed to being real, to the point that it created obstacles for his festival runs. However, critics and fans worldwide waited to celebrate and be inspired by his storytelling.
Every year, youngsters throng major film festivals such as International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) expecting to watch and discuss a Kim Ki-Duk film and dream to shock audiences by making a comparable thriller.
When no Korean film releases in Indian theatres, a Korean arthouse director enjoying a huge fanbase in a small state down south of India is an incredible feat. There will be no new Kim Ki-Duk film to look forward to in the forthcoming festival season is indeed a dampener for these youngsters. He says to himself in Arirang: “Tell me, you bastard… Do you see the Internet? Many are waiting for your film. Do what you can, whatever it is.”