Dinner with the legendary Kim Ki Duk turned out to be memorable for actor-director Shankar Mohan

A dinner with Kim Ki Duk was awaiting me that day. The South Korean auteur was at the 43rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, to present his retrospective. Although we were in the midst of festival activities and I was quite exhausted with the day’s events, friend and filmmaker Shaji N. Karun insisted that I take off for a dinner with Kim Ki Duk. As I went through the motions of the day’s activities of steering a mega festival, and resolving the myriad complexities that each day poses, I was also dimly aware of the blissful evening rendezvous with the great filmmaker. I was equally apprehensive. Not for the serious demur of the man or the factuality of his cinematic genius, but rather by the reality that he did not speak English! Although he had a translator, dinners were usually spaces meant for getting to know each other in an informal way.

The venue was an old heritage Goan restaurant called Viva Panjim, owned and managed by the graceful Linda De Souza. Leaving the festival premises from your office (if you are its director) can sometimes be a Herculean task as you manoeuvre through all the lovely people you know (or sometimes don’t know), until you get into your vehicle. You are lucky on days when you don’t have to drop a friendly delegate who has missed his shuttle bus to Taj Vivanta or to Panjim market.

The place was crowded, but thankfully, nobody familiar. I settled down after the customary greetings and introductions. Whether by design or accident, I sat facing Kim Ki Duk, and that was good. Kim Ki was accompanied by his beautiful companion Anastasia Galkina from Russia and his interpreter from New Delhi.

Drinks, dinner and the ambience of an old Goan restaurant are a deadly, magical concoction that break barriers of languages and cultures. Kim Ki was relaxed and most times he would directly respond to us in his inadequate English that we all understood. What amazed us was his characteristic simplicity. He seemed like a man, who, perhaps, was not aware of his own reputation. His child-like responses amazed us while he narrated to us his own struggle to survive while working at a factory at the age of 16. Those six years that he struggled, according to him, are the formative years that also gave him an insight into the harsh realities of life. Those six years were also the most painful period of his life. About his films, he said, as a matter of fact, that they were mostly autobiographical.

But he surprised us when he said that he religiously watched the evening news on television every day. That was the stuff that eventually gave him his plots and stories!

Kim Ki came through as a very entertaining person. Like a child, he was addicted to magic, he narrated his travel to Paris and his deep interest in painting. It was this interest that eventually came as a catharsis from the hardships of his past.

His expressions were often interspersed with dramatic enactment. While explaining his love and respect for women, he, like a child, would rest his head on Anastasia’s shoulders and say that women were like a home and they gave him rest.

To our surprise, suddenly, he poured water into a tall beer glass and cupped his palm on it and miraculously lifted it high from the table gleefully saying – “see magic”. While some of us attempted to imitate him, trying to prove a point, the glass would not stick to our palm and clumsily fall to the table with a thud! The, he would pluck a hair from his Korean interpreter’s head, gently tie it into a tight knot and ask if anyone would get rid of the knot. Looking at the almost invisible hair and its knot, the resounding “NO” from the table would thrill him. He would than place the hair in the palm of his hand, close it and beat it with the other hand a few times, ask us to blow on the cupped palm, and, Lo! when it was opened, the knot had vanished!

That evening was pure Kim Ki magic, to be followed by more… on screen. His latest, Venice Award-winning Pieta opened in IFFI to a full house the next day. I had watched Pieta before. I watched it again, but with a better understanding of the man himself. And now the hallmark awe, shock and simplicity of a Kim Ki Duk movie seemed as delicious and lingering as the dessert we had the previous day.

(The author is the Director of International Film Festival of India)