- Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Cruelty:Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy
The Ethical Question
I first saw Kim Ki-duk's sixth feature film, Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong; 2001), during the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival. Films by this post–New Wave Korean director are bound to ignite heated controversy, even in the context of the international film festivals in which they are generally shown. A screening of The Isle (Seom; 1999) in Philadelphia, for example, began with an in-person disclaimer by the festival programmer stating that it was unquestionably the most graphic of all the films being screened that year and advising audience members to leave the theater if the intensity of the images became unbearable. And indeed, explicit scenes of sadistic emotional and physical torture, blatant cruelty to animals, masochistic self-mutilation (via fishhook insertions), and humiliating subordination [End Page 65] of women by supermacho Korean men were abundant. Despite the fact that these grim moments proved to be important narrative turning points, justifying to a degree their necessity, spectators were disturbed enough by The Isle to leave the film in droves. In Rotterdam, Kim Ki-duk's newest film, Address Unknown, also began with a disclaimer, stating that "No animal was harmed in any way during the making of this film." It seemed, on the one hand, to pique the morbid curiosity of the viewer while, on the other, to temporarily inoculate the audience against the shock of the brutal images that were to follow.
Critics have generally focused on the violence or gender politics raised by Kim Ki-duk's films, but their arguments often assume that we are in a position to make ethical judgments about films in a relatively unproblematic manner.1 I argue that Kim Ki-duk's cinema and its circulation through the international film festival produces a crisis around this very issue, raising the question of the meaning of ethics within the global context. I begin by discussing a short passage from Address Unknown, identifying themes that generate the problem of ethical relations. These themes will then be elaborated through readings of texts by Emmanuel Levinas, Béla Balázs, and Gilles Deleuze, focusing in particular on their considerations of the face. For Levinas, the question of ethics is emblemized by the face-to-face encounter, a moment that discloses to the I the infinite separation between itself and the other. Balázs and Deleuze, as we shall see, discuss physiognomy as intimately related to the production of affect in cinema. Here, the face will be pivotal in connecting ethics to film, such that "ethically looking" toward the other will be related to "ethically looking" in the cinema.
The site of the international film festival is particularly important to my argument, as these festivals screen and display the "art films" that represent national cinemas from around the world and in which we encounter images of other peoples and cultures. While the film image has the potential to level cultural difference—following the critique of postmodernism that claims there is no depth to the flatness of the cinema screen—I argue that Kim Ki-duk's Address Unknown attempts to recover the unsettling radicality of alterity despite this discursive effect of flattening. Through a consideration of otherness in cinema, I hope to sidestep both relativist and moralistic critiques of this film. Such judgments, as we will see, ultimately refuse the [End Page 66] other its radical heterogeneity, absorbing the possibility of otherness into the totality of the same.
Address Unknown tells the story of a community stricken by postwar dilapidation and poverty. The small town is situated near a U.S. military base in Pyongtaek, about seventy kilometers south of Seoul. The time is the fall of 1970, at the height of Park Chung-hee's so-called military rule, when rapid economic developments were being realized while the struggle toward democracy floundered. The film focuses on four young Koreans, whose past emotional and physical traumas remain fatefully and tragically intertwined. Chang-guk is the son of a former military bar hostess and an African-American soldier. He is constantly ostracized and taunted by...