Friday, 23 May 2008

Evaluation and Kim Ki-Duk

Generally, I try to write about films I admire or at least appreciate in some way, even if I criticize certain aspects. One of the most difficult things about being a film reviewer, I think, would be having to sit through and then write about movies you find either offensively bad or just uninteresting. Most films I see I end up liking, precisely because I know my own taste fairly well and avoid films I do not think will appeal to me. For example, I still haven't seen The Lord of the Rings and most Hollywood blockbusters from the past decade. Of course, this does not always work out. Directors who I admire occasionally make bad films, and there are critically acclaimed films that I end up disliking. And, occasionally, I'll watch something for scholarly or social reasons which I realize I probably will not like. But overall, I tend not to really dislike too many films I end up viewing. I give all the films I watch star ratings out of five. 2 and half stars or less would be a negative assessment, although films I give 2 and half stars to tend to have something redeeming about them even if they did not appeal to me on the whole. I have watched, by my count, 87 films that have been released since 2005 or later. Of those films, there are only 14 films getting less than 3 stars, and only 6 with 2 stars or less. In case anyone is curious, they are:

2 and a half stars

Jesus Camp
A Scanner Darkly
Inside Man
Sin City
My Blueberry Nights
Away From Her

2 stars

The Good German
Clerks II
Hard Candy

1 and a half stars

Little Children

1 star


What has this have to do with anything? Well, maybe nothing, but I do still believe in the idea and even the value and necessity of evaluation, even if I also recognize the contingencies of one's tastes. It is also a rather long preamble to a discussion of Korean director Kim Ki-Duk. As one may have guessed, I believe, on the basis of the two films I have seen, that Kim is vastly overrated. And while I usually keep my dislikes to myself, I thought it may be useful to try to articulate what about Kim I have an aversion to.

Kim's most well-known film, at least in North America, is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003), which played theatrically in art cinemas. For me, it was one of those 2 and a half star films. I didn't actively detest it, and certainly it was well shot (although more pretty than beautiful). But I found it essentialist and simple-minded in its attempt to be quietly profound. I also saw its view of gender and sexuality very reactionary, something its Buddhist transcendence seemed to be a cover for. However, it is unfair to dismiss a director on one film, especially one chosen for its exoticism to be imported commercially. Reading about Kim, I felt that his Address Unknown (2001) would be more to my sensibility. It is a drama set in 1970 in a small South Korean village near an American military base. The community has been ravaged by the war with North Korea and by the American occupation.

Theoretically, this subject matter seems very rich. However, almost everything about Kim's execution of this material bothered me, and by the conclusion I was about as disgusted with a film as I can get. Aesthetically, there is a little of distinction here (although I did like the opening shots of a gun being made out of a wood sign). Few of the images resonate, and Kim seems to believe presenting disturbing subject matter is enough. But more of a problem is how horribly schematic the plotting and its "meaning" is. In this regard, it is similar to two of the other films of recent years that really bothered me: Little Children and Crash. All three films feature characters that are simply abstract concepts meant to convey meaning. Within a certain style and context, this could work fine. I love Godard, for instance. But these films try to combine this with a nationalist melodrama and heavy-handed editing in which we are supposed to experience emotion and catharsis. Kim's film also suffers from some horrible acting from the American soldiers. While this is perhaps understandable and even forgivable, it is indicative of Kim's crudity. The film is nothing but symbols and meaning, and as a result really does not say anything at all, beyond reiterating South Korean xenophobia (as opposed to Crash's fantasy of the American melting pot, which was equally dishonest in its treatment of race).

Of course, I may be missing something. Maybe Kim is a Korean Douglas Sirk, cleverly using modern day violent melodrama to be ironic about Korean society and its problems. And it is entirely possible that I would appreciate later Kim films like 3-Iron (2004), Time (2006), or Breath (2007). However, after the experience of Address Unknown, it will take me awhile to get back on this cinematic horse.

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