Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bad guy?: "Arirang"

Arirang is Kim Ki-Duk's Mid-Life Crisis Movie. Kim was the erstwhile bad boy of Korean cinema, whose penchant for brutal violence momentarily made him arthouse flavour of the month during the turn-of-the-century extreme movement, and wore thin very quickly. (It's hard not to think Kim's Japanese contemporary Takashi Miike adapted far better to the times, making an unexpected leap into 3D samurai movies when he realised conventionality was about the only taboo left for his cinema to break.) In this semi-autobiographical, documentary-like portrait, Kim is observed living in exile, sleeping in a tent in a chilly cabin in the hills, where he's apparently been for the past three years, ever since an accident on the set of his last film, 2008's Dream, almost led to an actress being hanged. To all appearances, he's a broken man, hearing knocking at the door, and driven to start talking to himself - or, at least, into the lens of his faithful camera, thus returning the focus to himself.

Interrupting this feature-length confession are glimpses of an existence as spartan and ritualised as that of the central character in Kim's most complete work to date, 2003's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring: he chops firewood, heats water in a bucket he uses to wash his face in, prepares a limited selection of meals for himself, and interacts only with his decidedly well-fed cat. Yes, it's the kind of indulgence only internationally revered auteurs get to make: closer to Soderbergh's Schizopolis (without the laughs) than it is to the recent This is Not a Film, whose director-subject Jafar Panahi had problems beyond writer's block. 

If you know anything of Kim's work, this self-interrogation can be revealing. His cinema always was of the primal variety, with the faintly adolescent tendency to divide the world into good and evil, characteristics that come to be underlined by his sometimes enraged, sometimes tearful monologue. "I was making films to improve the image of the nation," he ventures, a claim that may surprise anyone who struggled with the misogyny of 2001's Bad Guy or the fishhook-gargling of 2000's The Isle. The masochism on display is all Kim, however. One line of self-criticism (self-abuse, if the film's doing nothing for you) explored here is that the director had drifted further and further away from his films: where his characters have tended to be bold and headstrong to the point of psychotic, Kim paints himself as meek and evasive. (In exile, he's turned himself into Hamlet in England, steeling himself to bump off more Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns.) Yet he's committed to beating himself around the head from a number of angles: as he frames it, the Dream nightmare was a result of having assumed too much responsibility over the past decade, and a need to make the violence in his films as realistic as possible. Some people you just can't argue with.

Something's certainly missing here: any outside perspective. (You want to hear what the actress in question has to say about the incident, and whether or not she can forgive Kim his lapse of attention.) What Arirang finally proves is that this director is capable of pushing even self-pity to an extreme. I suspect Kim's lachrymose rendition of the title song, a lament on the ups and downs of life, will be the cue for the greatest number of walkouts - and there's still half the film remaining at this point; by the time he's filming himself preparing a silver revolver for what looks ominously like a suicide attempt, it's clear he's still playing a very dangerous game indeed. The result is less an entertainment per se than an exercise, an act of penance one man (and perhaps only one man) needs to work through, but there are signs Kim may emerge a stronger, more emotionally grounded filmmaker for it. We might wish some of this self-awareness was evident in such Western "bad boys" as Quentin Tarantino or Gaspar Noe, who haven't come close to killing anyone (as far as we know), but have squandered so many hours of cinemagoing time over the past decade-and-a-half.

Arirang opens at London's ICA tomorrow, where a Kim retrospective will be playing throughout June. Details can be found here.

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