My Favourite Korean Films – Part 1 – Films of Kim Ki-Duk

by Dec 20, 20210 comments

I watched 132 films during the lockdown of 132 days in 2020! {& a total of 200 in the year 2020!} Not exactly 1 per day, but the average would be 1 per day, during the total lockdown! Some days I did not watch any, on other days I watched 3 films from the same franchise in a single day! Anyway, I have watched about 120~125 films each year since 2016, when I started attending PIFF (Pune International Film Festival) and EUFF (European Union Film Festival) every year. In addition, some years had Korean /Iranian Film Festivals.

I have come to like Iranian films for the drama, acting, direction etc. And I have started to love Korean films for their daring subjects, great acting, fantastic cinematography, fast paced dramas, amazing twists in the plots, action thrillers, etc.

I am writing here about some Korean films I liked very much. Starting with the films of Kim Ki Duk, since he passed away last December and today is his birth Anniversary & I have watched a dozen films by this Director.

A bit about the Director himself:

Kim Ki-duk (20 December 1960 – 11 December 2020) was a South Korean film director and screenwriter, noted for his idiosyncratic art-house cinematic works. Having no educational background in film or the arts, a school dropout and then working in factories and serving in the army,  he went on to become one of the most celebrated directors in the international Film Festival Circuit.
His initial films were failures at the Korean box-office, but they got Kim a cult following in Europe, where festivals continued to show his films. The films won awards in Festivals from Berlin to Barcelona to Busan! Pune International Film Festival, PIFF 2021 had a special Tribute section for his films.

He loves some themes and they can be seen repeatedly in his films.

  1.   A lake and a boat inside that lake: 

The boat is the only mode of transport for the entry / exit route. One of the principal characters controls that route by owning that boat. The Buddhist monks do not control the boat and allow others to use it at will (& of course are not evil), but all the other characters in films with such boats, are evil. {e.g. The Isle, The Bow, …}

  1. Cyclical nature of life:
    ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring’ as well as ‘Human, Space, Time and Human’ have shown this. {In Human, Space, Time and Human, all the people on a boat die, except for one lady who is pregnant and life starts again afterwards.}
  1. Sex and Incest:

Ki-Duk routinely shows sex in his film. Many films have prostitutes in it. Almostall the films that I saw had some explicit sex in it. ‘Bad Guy’ is on the subject of prostitution & pimps.

Sex is part of the plot in most films and is the need of the film in most cases. But films such as ‘Pietà’, ‘Moebius’ and ‘Human, Space, Time and Human’ have shown incest as well.

  1.  Minimum dialogues: 

The Director has acting and cinematography under his control, & Ki-Duk uses both these beautifully. Most of his films do not have dialogues / have minimal dialogues. Female leads in ‘The Isle’ and ‘The Bow’ are assumed to be mute. The ‘Bad Guy’ cannot speak, and we realize much later in the film, that he cannot speak, when he shouts after a fight.

Male/female leads in ‘3- Iron’ do not need to speak & that film may have 4-5 dialogues. ‘Mobius’ has no dialogues in the entire film.
These characters do not talk because something has deeply wounded them. They had their trust in other human beings destroyed because of promises that were not kept. They lose their faith and stop talking altogether. In some cases, they turn to violence, which becomes their way of expression.
The Director was once quoted saying, “The scars and wounds which mark my figures are the signs of experiences which young people go through, in an age when they cannot really respond to outside traumas. I had similar experiences in school & even later. The question, ‘why does this have to be?’ stayed with me until I became a director and now I express how I think and feel about these things.”

    1.  Cruel nature of bosses: 

    ‘Bad Guy’ is of course about the ‘Bad Guys’ in the red light district, but even the film ‘One on One’ also shows the cruel nature of bosses who do not care about the employees, but care about results. (Same thing is seen even in ‘Pietà’, ‘The Net’, ‘Human, Space, Time and Human’ etc). In the film ‘The Net’, police from both the Koreas are shown to be out to prove that the innocent guy is a spy, even though he denies that.

    1. Cruelty in general: 

    Perhaps he meant to say that life is cruel, so let it be shown in my films! Therefore, most of his films show cruelty to humans or animals. Even the ways of committing suicide are strange and cruel to the characters themselves. Some scenes from ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring’ were removed in the US version as animal activists raised objection to shots depicting cruelty to animals.


    1. North / South Korea: 

    In ‘Secret Reunion’, an undercover spy becomes wanted in both the Koreas.

    Representative picture, Image by Wolfgang Reindl from Pixa bay

    In ‘Poongsan’, a contract courier routinely crosses the border and smuggles items + people across the 2 countries. In the film, ‘The Net’, a North Korean fisherman wanders into South Korea as his net gets entangled in his engine. Poor guy is suspected of being a spy by both the Koreas. He saves a prostitute in Seouland asks some fundamental questions to the police officer guarding him, ‘If South Korea is open, why can the prostitute not leave her profession and go home?’ ‘Why she has to be forced into selling her body?’

    1. Bold Subjects: 

    From mom cutting her son’s penis to punish her husband (in Mobius), to how the bad guys run their business of brothels and trap an innocent lady (in Bad Guy), to Old man kidnapping a 6 year old girl and marrying her after keeping her on his boat for 10 years; Kim Ki-Duk handles topics not handled by others easily.

      Here are a few MUST SEE films of Kim Ki-Duk

      Representative picture, Image by Wolfgang Reindl from Pixa bay

      3-Iron (2004):
      Korean Name: Bin-jip(Empty House)
      It is a Romance Drama in which a young man breaks into empty homes to use these homes for a few days. He watches the owners leave for holidays and enters their homes. He repairs some of the stuff, washes the clothes kept pending by the lady of the house and eats, sleeps in the house as if he were the owner, then moves to a similar home once the owners arrive. All these happen when the owners are out on a trip or picnic for a couple of days. One day, however, he does not realize that only the husband has left and his wife is at home!! She has an abusive husband. The lady does not protest even when she sees him and appears to be very sad. She even joins him, when he leaves the home (elopes with him) ‘ both continue staying in homes of holidaying people.

      The abusive husband bribes the police, beats the protagonist and forces the police to put him in jail. The young man learns concealment, frustrating his jailers by remaining out of their sight. Upon release, goes to his girlfriend ‘stays in her home, without her husband knowing… Mostly no dialogues in the entire film! Can the lovers be a figment of imagination of each other?

        Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter & Spring… (2003):
        I think the best film of Kim Ki Duk would be Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter & Spring… The film is divided into five segments (the seasons as in the title), each segment depicting a stage in the life of a younger Buddhist monk and his older teacher. The segments are roughly ten to twenty years apart, and the action of each takes place during the season of its title. The story unfolds rather simply, but the implications of the characters’ actions are silently commented upon by symbolism. Again a film with minimal dialogues.

        It also shows that life moves in cycles.

        1. Spring: 

        The young kid tries to torment innocent animals, some of whom die. The Guru teaches him not to do so, as it harms others.

        1. Summer: After 10 years: 

        The kid grows, meets a young girl visiting the monastery and they make love. He runs away with her, apparently marries her.

        1. Fall: After 10 years: 

        The apprentice is accused of murdering his wife. Comes running to his Guru, who asks him to go with the police and face the punishment for his Karma. After the police take the apprentice away, the Guru realizes his part on this earth is over and performs a funeral ritual to die.

        1. Winter: After 20 years: 

        The ward returns to the monastery after his sentence. Becomes a monk himself, a lady leaves her son there and dies by freezing, after falling in the hole in ice. The newly elevated monk starts teaching the new apprentice.

        1. Spring again: 

        After 10 years: #1 above gets repeated, with the new apprentice tormenting the animals and Guru admonishing him. Life moves in cycles!

        All action takes place at or near the monastery in the centre of a lake and the cinematography as well as acting is superb. Director Kim Ki-Duk himself plays the role of the Adult monk in the last part of the film.

        The Isle (2000):
        A young mute lady runs a resort inside a lake, sells food to the clients, transports them via boat, even sells her body when desired by the clients. But she controls the exit route by controlling the only boat in the lake. She falls in love with a man on the run from the law. A prostitute also falls in love with the same man. She murders the prostitute & her pimp who comes to look for her. After some time, a tourist loses his expensive watch in the lake and divers are called to find that, but they find the dead bodies instead. The mute lady and her boyfriend run away in a boat. The end is left to the imagination of the audience.

          Bad Guy (2001):
          Bad Guy is about a man who traps an innocent young girl into prostitution, then becomes protective of her. The film was controversial for its frank portrayal of gangsters, prostitution, and sexual slavery. We should watch it to understand how an innocent person might get trapped in this racket, so as to educate our kids what not to do. As the Director himself said in an interview, “If you think of my film as Kim Ki-Duk creating the misfortune of the woman it depicts, then that’s very dangerous. But if you think of it as the depiction of a problem that already existed in the society then you cannot really hate Bad Guy.”

          The Net (2016):
          A North Korean fisherman wanders into South Korea as his net gets entangled in his engine. South Koreans try to make him look a spy. After failing that, they offer him the chance to be a citizen, promising a good job and home. But he has his wife and daughter in the North! He refuses to defect. He even does not see anything while going in a car for the fear that he would be asked questions about that back home. Then they leave him in the open market to see what he does. He saves a prostitute in Seoul and comes back to his guardian police officer, whom he asks some fundamental questions, “If South Korea is open, why can the prostitute not leave her profession and go home” “Why she has to be forced into selling her body?” He is later sent back to North Korea and they imagine he had defected and has come back as a spy.

          (NOT directed by Kim, but he is the producer and scriptwriter while his erstwhile assistant– Juhn Jai-hong – is the main director of this film) Poongsan, is a mysterious messenger who crosses the border between the two Koreas, delivering letters and cherished heirlooms between separated families in Seoul and Pyongyang.
          One day he is commissioned by South Korean government officials with the task of smuggling in the beautiful lover of a high-ranking North Korean defector, into the South. Of course unofficially! Things take an unexpected turn when the courier man falls in love with the young woman. Both North and South Korean officials look at him with suspicion of being a spy. Both attack him at different times.

          Which are your favourite Kim Ki-Duk films?

          –Prasad Sovani


          Submit a Comment

          Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *