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Kim Ki-duk (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 418-420 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0017

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There is an inherent tendency to avoid writing about Kim Ki-duk films even when you are working almost exclusively in Korean cinema. As a scholar who prides himself on having a professional, unprejudiced attitude toward all film, it is difficult to admit this, but the invitation to repeatedly watch the intense scenes of mutilation, rape, animal violence, molestation, and cannibalism that are relentless in Kim Ki-duk's films becomes a perilous burden even for a seasoned veteran of film criticism. Kim Ki-duk's films make you shriek, squirm, and bolt from your viewing chair, and no matter how many times you have seen them, each time you rewind and freeze-frame some of Kim's most disturbing scenes they remain just that—too disturbing. The chagrin proffered by these films is not only for the female audience to bear, but for men as well. But these are probably not the only reasons why Kim Ki-duk's films are so difficult to watch. His films eschew many of the traits that have made Korean cinema so pronounced and entertaining during the era of hallyu. His films' production values are low, the acting is subpar, and most importantly, the fun commercial spaces of glitzy shopping malls and high-rise apartments, and upscale cafés and restaurants that are markers of South Korea's meteoric rise in the global ranking of economic prosperity are largely invisible. Instead, as Hye Seung Chung, author of succinctly titled Kim Ki-duk, argues, "alternative spaces of invisibility, exile, and alienation" (p. 61) such as squatters' parlors, slaughterhouses, boot camps, solitary cells, and whorehouses appear in Kim's cinema. The graphic depiction of these slums and marginal spaces without any lamination of glossy cinematic production design often makes the violence and sex represented in his films even harsher.

One of the criticisms that my own work in Korean films has thus far drawn over the years has been the glaring omission of Kim Ki-duk's films. I am actually not alone here. Several more books on Korean cinema published in the past few years such as New Korean Cinema edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer, and The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs by Jinhee Choi do not extensively engage with the works of Kim Ki-duk, who is arguably the most visible Korean filmmaker in the international film circuit. But here storms in a carefully researched and sobering assessment of the aesthetics and controversies provoked by Kim's work, filling in the gap in existing scholarship. Hye Seung Chung, a graduate of UCLA's Ph.D. program in cinema and media studies, demonstrates an adept ability to transit effortlessly from Western theory to primary Korean research and copiously draw from media coverage, interviews, and local film criticism on Kim Ki-duk's work. Kim Ki-duk is an exemplary book that has much to offer to students, scholars, and even fans from all walks of life. Chung's keen film analysis is often brilliantly shaped by both personal testimonies and theoretical erudition.

It is Chung's uncompromising search to stake out a terrain that embraces neither a scathing feminist attack on Kim Ki-duk's portraits of women nor a Marxist apologia for his tormented, downtrodden, working-class characters that makes her position on Kim Ki-duk unique. One of the constant questions that surround Kim's work over the past fifteen years is whether his films are misogynist or not. I had previously attempted to sidestep around this thorny issue by meekly suggesting that, as quoted by Chung, Kim's films "are no more misogynistic than the Korean society itself that has adopted its masculine hegemonic values by fusing neo-Confucian ethics, and military rule and structure that stem from decades—if not centuries—of foreign occupation and martial violence" (p. 135). Rather than accepting this kind of evasive approach, Chung adopts a cautious and yet forcible attitude. She asks, "What baffles me most, though, is why and how Kim's decision to foreground underclass sex workers . . . automatically qualifies his films as misogynist" (p. 75). She then boldly claims that the accusations levied against Kim are most...

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