At the risk of being labelled an “unrepentant misogynistic pig”, I am a devoted fan of South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. His films are, understandably, better known for the controversy they spark than for their artistic merit; however, I find that the unrelenting focus on “shock value” tends to overshadow the fact that Kim is not only a talented director, but also a skilled writer who is unafraid to confront – and sometimes torment – his viewers with the pain and tragedy of the human condition. Particularly known for his use of sparse and minimal dialogue and psychologically wounded characters, Kim is an auteur who zeroes in on raw human emotion and the complexities of social interaction. He is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but if I were to suggest a Kim film for the uninitiated I would go with his most recent film Dream (2008). Although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…And Spring (2003) and 3-Iron (2004) are arguably his most popular and accessible films, Dream, to my mind, exemplifies the delicate balance between violence and poetry that is the mark of Kim’s style.
I don’t make films to serve the audience. I don’t try to entice viewers to watch, understand, or even like my films – that’s not my job.
The premise of Dream is rather surreal in its elaborate construction. Following a late-night car accident, a man (Jô Odagiri) discovers that his dreams are strangely connected to the sleepwalking of a woman (Lee Na-yeong) he has never met, and it is subsequently revealed that while he dreams, she enacts the content of his oneiric narratives. Dream touches on a number of reoccurring themes in Kim’s work, such as connection, desire and negotiating male-female relationships. There is always an element of magic realism in all of Kim’s films, which usually arises at the denouement and works to confound the viewer, and Dream takes this approach to the extreme. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle dream, reality and fantasy.
This confusion is principally expressed through violence in scenes where the infliction of physical pain becomes the only mode of communication available to Kim’s tormented characters. However, the violence in Dream is filtered through an aesthetic lens. Every element of the mise en scène culminates in an aesthetic that consistently juxtaposes violence and beauty. Indeed, what makes Kim such an intriguing and challenging director is that while he confronts the viewer both visually and thematically (child prostitution, rape, self-mutilation, suicide and murder have all featured in his oeuvre), his films transcend their own ugliness. Notably, Kim has no formal training, but spent his foundational years selling his art on the streets of Paris. It is therefore no coincidence that his films use colour, light and composition in such a sumptuous fashion.
In Roger Ebert’s review of The Isle (2001) – a film that pictures scenes of real animal cruelty and the oral and vaginal insertion of fishhooks – he made an extremely poignant comment regarding the viewer’s choice to watch films of Kim’s ilk: “Most people choose movies that provide exactly what they expect, and tell them things they already know. Others are more curious. We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds.” If you’re willing to be a challenged I definitely recommend that you check out Dream, as well as Kim’s other films.