Profile: Auteur Kim Ki-duk, an icon at the IFFK, has an oeuvre that plumbs the depths of primordial fears and desires, thus forcing viewers to confront their ideas of morality and aesthetics.
Kim Ki-duk’s movies sometimes feel like a psychoanalyst’s dream come true. They seem to take us on a ruthless downslide journey into our own unconscious, deep into the secret folds and crannies of our psyche, revealing a seething cauldron of desires and anxieties that the conscious self would never wish to confront. Sigmund Freud and his followers seem to be seated in the gallery, rubbing their hands in glee and saying “Didn’t we say so”! Totems and taboos, the violence that erupts from breaking them, the physiology and psychology of that violence, are at the most fundamental levels, not very different from one culture to another. And it is this violence that is unleashed on the screen when repressions explode like an erupting volcano in the movies of Kim Ki-duk.
One of the most successful of contemporary auteurs from Korea, Kim Ki-duk is, however, still considered marginal in his home turf. After the repeated box office failures of his films in Korea and of his being continuously ignored and sidelined by the Korean press, critics and intellectuals alike, he calmly declared that he would neither release any of his films in his own country nor give press conferences there. However, his immense popularity amongst the art-house audiences around the world seems compensation enough.
Kim Ki-duk’s lifelong hobby is painting and the fascination with colours, palettes and frames, with liquid spaces and molten moments, all of which haunt his cinema too. In that lilting paean to time titled Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), or in the rapturous canvas of The Bow (2005) where line and colour unite, he mesmerised his audiences with visually stunning frames, each a painting evocative of the colour of light, of objects and the fluid grace of individuals. One can see the artist as auteur here, setting out on his personal journey into the art of cinema, determined to chart out a different course and articulate his own signature style.
The journey that made Kim Ki-duk an international filmmaker to reckon with was a long and arduous one. He was born in 1960 to working class parents in Bonghwa County in the North Gyeongsang Province of South Korea. The family later moved to Seoul and Kim Ki-duk became a factory worker. He lived to eke out a living, and was “always tired” in his own words, till he reached Paris. There he worked as a street painter for some time, revelling in the lights, the architecture, the cityscapes and strange fractured realities of city people, which would all translate to cinema later in works like Three Iron or Time.
It was only after going to Paris that he started watching cinema. It is telling that at this time one of his fascinations was for The Silence Of The Lambs, a cult movie that intertwined the genres of the horror and the thriller and wove a delicate and subtle tale unravelling the secret springs of madness, violence, cannibalism and sex. This movie would be of lasting influence in his mind and might have gone on to shape his cinematic experiments with the most primal of instincts and the most primitive of passions. He learned to juxtapose them with the terror of the unknown, with the predatory potential of all the five senses, but primarily with that of sight in cinema. Thus his movies essentially deal with sensations, that they become sensational in the process seems only incidental to him.
Most of his characters do not talk and seem uninterested in offering explanations or simplistic rationale for their complex actions. By blocking access to the spectators’ easiest escape route of moralising, by denying them the safe havens of pre-determined moral and ethical codes, Kim Ki-duk challenges the conventional ways of being and becoming. In the process he unveils each and every form of repression, from oedipal desires to incest and murder. For audiences in severely repressed societies this would mean a cinematic revelation of everything that morality and religion have stifled, liberating pleasure from all passports, and illustrating how both extreme pain and pleasure shatters the bubble of human identity. However this would also mean that the curious fascination for Kim Ki-duk is mostly an all male phenomenon. Other than his earlier films he has not been a favourite with women audiences and his name remains anathema to feminists in Korea.
Over the years Kim Ki-duk has gone on to become an icon at The International Film Festival of Kerala, where year after year audiences from this part of the world have thronged to watch Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, Three Iron, The Bow, Time, Dream, Breath, Arirang, Pieta and now Moebius. All this started in 2005 when Bina Paul, artistic director of the IFFK, curated a retrospective on Kim Ki-duk which turned out to be a spectacular success. Kerala’s cinephiles found him irresistible and the youngsters adored him, and he seemed to have taught them a lesson or two about how the digital could offer endless possibilities for low-budget off-beat film making. His movies seem to proclaim that style is the man. The surface effects of his images make us probe into the deepest foundations of our philosophy, aesthetics, knowledge systems and morality. Through a cinema of excess, of affect and sensations, he relentlessly and mercilessly makes his audiences think about the dehumanising and desensitising worlds they inhabit in their contemporary everyday lives.