Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #5

March 15, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann

The Art House ‘Duck’

Kim Ki-duk

When the idea of a series of essays on Korean film first occurred to me, I knew no matter what I wanted to include based on my own tastes, there were a few films and filmmakers that needed to be included based on their international popularity and clout.  To leave them out would render the discussion somehow incomplete or inert.  I originally imagined dispersing these ‘prerequisite posts’ throughout the series, along with others that seemed timely, deserved a plug, or were just dear to my heart. My thought was that I might bolster readership throughout by holding back discussion on a ‘heavyweight’ film or two.

However fate intervened (as it often does in matters of such massive, universal importance) and two out of the three major posts to which I allude have already been posted.* So why hold back posting the third prerequisite essay?  With no further ado, I would like to focus my attention on the director Kim Ki-duk (“ki-duck”) and a few of his films.

Kim, one of Korea’s foremost arthouse directors, makes films that might be described as philosophical, stark, and at times unsettling. For the uninitiated, the best introduction to his canon in my opinion is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄여름가을겨울 그리고 봄, 2003).  It is one of his most famous films and also perhaps his most accessible. The scenery is beautiful and the director’s long takes along with his actor’s understated performances reinforce the quiet power and vibrancy of the setting.  The story is simple and the themes are layered to ensure even the least engaged viewers might leave with something to think about. In other words, it’s easy to watch.

The film follows the development (both physically and spiritually) of a boy who is brought up in a tiny temple on a lake nestled in amongst the mountains of the Korean wilderness.  Each season represents a new stage in his development and is separated by years in his life.

Kim Ki-duk’s films generally feature characters on the periphery of society: in this case the monks have almost no contact with the rest of the world.  Structurally, likewise, this film resembles Kim’s other films: a few key characters and a scenario are introduced early in the film – the boy and the old monk that looks after him – and scenes explore the relationship between these characters and Kim’s themes, rather than relating a plot-driven story. The pace is meandering (some would say slow).

In general this film reflects the serenity of the environment, therefore a few more severe tendencies in Kim’s filmmaking, while present, are curbed or diluted in this example.  For one, Kim’s almost frustratingly sparse use of dialog works well given the scenario and when it is necessary to communicate people do talk to one another, unlike some of his other works where the silence feels more disconcerting, even crushing.  Also, a scene of bloody violence sets the scene for one season’s action, but we hear about it rather than see it.  In other films, Kim goes to almost sadistic lengths in his portrayal of violence.

While stylistically Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring bares the mark of Kim and some of his major themes are present, this film would not appropriately prepare you for a more intense Kim Ki-duk experience.

Bad Guy (나쁜 남자, 2002)  is such an experience.  I squirmed and struggled my way through this film about a pimp who, through an elaborate plan, ensnares an innocent college girl in Korea’s sex trade.  About thirty minutes into the film audiences watch along with the title character as the girl struggles to keep her virginity even as she is carted off to a whorehouse – it’s essentially a prolonged rape, playing out over multiple scenes.

Ladies! Beware rapist kidnappers in telltale shirts!

While I think it may be valid, on some level, to interpret this film as social commentary, the absolutely fucked up situation goes way beyond metaphor for the sex trade and into a twisted and utterly hopeless exploration of the relationship between man and woman. Relationships between the sexes are under tension in every Kim movie I’ve seen and it makes me question whether it’s always about social structures, or his own perverted hang-ups with women. Understand that I am not passing off Kim Ki-duk’s work as misogynistic – that would be too basic an analysis. For example women are always present and usually positively represented in Kim’s films. I have considered that men and women in the films represent masculine and feminine aspects of the a single psyche, but I think that is a pretty thin premise on which to feature so much gratuitous, disturbing sex.  At any rate when it comes to freaky sex I am certainly no expert.  I must defer in this case to the blog’s host and master, David.  Also I’d love to hear a female take on the films of Kim Ki-duk.

Perhaps not surprisingly, based on the shock value and social criticism I made mention of above, Kim is not an especially popular director in Korea.  I think of Korea as an ultra-materialist society and Kim’s filmmaking is largely a reaction to that. Certainly Kim Ki-duk’s films are not for all tastes**, however there is a minority the world over that demand intense, challenging, reflective films and the fact that Kim and other Korean filmmakers help feed that demand speaks to the depth of Korea’s film industry and talent.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so… Check out Martin Scorsese’s praise of Korean cinema in his introduction to Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man (여자는 남자의 미래다, 2004), another Korean film internationally lauded for its artistic merit and originality.


* The other posts I considered ‘pre-requisite’ posts were Old Boy and My Sassy Girl based solely on their international appeal and the fact that online discussions of Korean film consistently hold these up as pinnacles of achievement along with the film discussed in this post.  Another film that almost makes the ‘must-be-discussed’ list is the war movie Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며, 2004). However I am deliberating the possibility of discussing a handful of Korean War movies in a future post.  In my opinion Korean War movies are very popular with Koreans, but don’t really do it for international audiences – I guess a post on the subject would just expand on that thought.

** I suppose my tastes are too mainstream. It’s likely clear from the above that I’m not a huge Kim Ki-duk fan. However I feel any artistic medium needs at least a few guys out there experimenting and pushing boundaries.  And I was surprised how much I enjoyed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.



  1. I fell asleep whilst trying to watch Bad Guy but what I do remember of it provided little incentive to correct that transgression.

    I plan to watch Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. Sounds somewhat more appealing than the rape-rom of Bad Guy.

  2. If I remember correctly, Kim Ki-Duk’s The Isle was the first Korean film I ever watched (it was that or Shiri). Frankly, it was shit. A dull flick punctuated by oddball shock moments involving fishhooks with the requisite inclusion of completely silent characters and some prostitutes to round things off.

  3. […] The Art House ‘Duck’ (Kim […]

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