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Reviewed by:
  • Kim Ki-duk by Hye Seung Chung
  • Amanda Landa (bio)
Kim Ki-duk by Hye Seung Chung. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. 161 pp. $22.00 (paper).

Kim ki-duk is hye seung chung’s contribution to the Contemporary Film Director series, a series that aims to “broaden our awareness of important artists, to give serious critical attention to their work and . . . contains incisive critical commentary.” Chung’s book aptly fulfills all requirements as an intricate and thoughtful overview of the director’s polarizing work and media image. The theoretical scope is wide, utilizing psychoanalytic, postcolonial, feminist, and literary theory as well as delineating the discourse in current academic writing, both English and Korean, surrounding the South Korean director. Each of Chung’s sections focuses on two or three of Kim’s films. And it is the films themselves that take center stage throughout as Chung emphasizes the effectiveness of Kim’s films at demonstrating the inequalities of power, which is of central concern to the impressive theorists she uses.

Chung’s first section, “Kim Ki-duk: Towards a More Perfect Imperfection,” serves as the introduction to her exploration into the oeuvre of Kim Ki-duk. First, she lays the contextual groundwork, cataloging contemporary South Korean directors and their respective successes within and outside of South Korea. With regard to Kim Ki-duk, the focus steers toward the critical attention he has received in the Western world, most particularly in European film festivals, the US home video market, and a MoMA retrospective in 2008. Chung quickly sets the stakes of her study as she dives into Kim’s personal history and touches on biographical aspects as symptomatic of the themes and characters that will appear in his films. She cites Kim’s desire to articulate subaltern perspectives and marginalized citizens in his works, organizing her argument around Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, “a particular type of anger and resentment that results from sustained periods of subordination and oppression” (7). By touching on the personal reflexivity in Kim’s films, she argues for the “explanatory power of auteurism” (7) in an age of industrial conglomeration and transnational media flows. In contrast to Ch’ungmuro—South Korea’s version of the Hollywood film industry—Chung situates Kim’s work between Second (auteur) Cinema and Third Cinema, the latter originating from South American guerilla filmmaking manifestos and articulated as “cinema for the masses.” Chung’s introduction thus neatly lays out [End Page 73] points of contention around Kim’s controversial work, from aspects of his personal life and beliefs, to his lack of success in South Korea and relative success abroad, to the polemic divide amongst critics, particularly regarding gender and violence.

Chung’s second section, “An Auteur Is Born: Fishhooks, Critical Debates, and Transnational Canons,” begins by delineating the mid-1990s phenomenon in East Asian cinema later to be coined “Extreme” cinema. This branding comes predominantly from now-defunct UK DVD distributor Tartan Films, which released a series titled Asia Extreme that showcased horror and thriller films from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere. Chung agrees that horrific aspects of Kim’s work might lend to an understanding of the films as part of what Linda Williams has termed “body genres,” perhaps best exemplified by the titular “fishhook scene,” where a man tries to commit suicide by swallowing a ball of fishhooks. Yet Chung argues that his films are neither horror nor thriller but social commentary that uses the body as a site of the grotesque in order to critique the social status quo. It is here that the author introduces many of the polarized critical debates, from the derisive Tony Rayns and outcry of contemporary feminist media scholars to the bemused critics and sympathetic artists and even Kim Ki-duk himself in multiple interviews. She writes: “Kim’s emotionally wrought films have prompted diametrically opposed yet equally passionate reactions (whether positive or negative) from viewers around the world” (21). She expertly navigates this complex discursive territory, retreading the critical arguments as objectively and as constructively as possible.

Section 3, “On Suffering and Sufferance: Postcolonial Pain and the ‘Purloined Letter’ in Address Unknown,” as the title implies...


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pp. 73-75
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