It’s that time of the year again. No, I am not talking about the upcoming holidays which almost everyone is looking forward to after a really stressful year. We are not just approaching the end of 2021, but also the conclusion of another admissions cycle for really anxious students who probably won’t be able to enjoy any time off due to the weight of their futures hanging over their heads.
As one of those students who finished applying to graduate school only to realise the irrevocable extent of my own damnation, I stumbled upon the works of South Korean pioneer Kim Ki-duk. Over the course of one afternoon, I was drawn into his surreal, endlessly enigmatic cinematic universe where his art tranquillised my anxieties. I finally understood what life-changing cinema really is.
By that very evening, that artificially induced tranquillity was punctured by the reports I discovered of the multiple sexual assault allegations against the filmmaker who had passed away last year after contracting Covid-19 while scouting for a new project. Although I was well aware of the countless platitudes about separating the art from the artist, it was impossible in Kim’s case as he had assaulted an actress on set for the purposes of “art”.
Born in South Korea in 1960, Kim was a lot of things over the course of his life – a factory worker, street artist, trainee priest, soldier, visionary and rapist. After returning from Paris where he practised painting and also discovered foreign cinema, Kim tried his luck as a screenwriter which turned out to be the right decision as he won national recognition and accolades for his work.
Although he debuted with his 1996 feature Crocodile, Kim only managed to attract international audiences when one of his masterpieces – The Isle – was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. I only saw it recently and with the retrospective knowledge of Kim’s horrendous atrocities, The Isle is an even more difficult watch than it must have been for people who went in uninitiated.
The film revolves around a lake with floating cottages which is managed by a sex worker who chooses not to speak. She provides the customers (who are usually fugitives) with fishing supplies and her own body until she falls in love with a troubled young man. Kim subjects the human body to mutilation and unimaginable pain, wishing to explore the human condition through the tragedy of our mortality.
“What does it mean to be human?” Kim once asked. “Maybe people will consider my new films brutal again. But this violence is just a reflection of what they really are, of what is in each one of us to certain degree.” His cinema weaves these reflections of reality together, somehow transforming them into a vision that possesses more clarity and more emotional force than any register of reality that I am familiar with.
When many actresses and other employees had come forward with the allegations, Kim had denied everything but he was ordered to pay damages to the survivors at the end of October 2020. A month and a half later, he was dead. After learning of this, I decided to experience 3-Iron, which is a fantastic work of magical realism about a housewife who escapes an abusive husband by running away with a mysterious drifter.
As the end credits rolled, I could not understand how an abuser and rapist could conduct such a tender treatment of love, female sexuality and domestic abuse. Maybe it was because he understood the dynamics of abuse so well. While my memories of The Isle and 3-Iron will always be tarnished by the reality of what Kim did, there is one film that exists outside the brutal reality of his life just like the cinematic space it evokes is situated outside the confines of modernity.
To me, that film is his magnum opus – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring – a work of breathtaking beauty about the various stages of a cyclical life, told through parables about a monk and his disciple who reside in a floating monastery in the middle of nowhere. As each frame progressed, I knew I was witnessing the work of a true master. The film’s title didn’t help; it had informed previous critics and scholars of the Buddhist tradition of thought but all I could think of were the spring, summer, fall and winter admission intakes of graduate schools. The “… and Spring” told me all I needed to understand.
When his death was first reported, people in other parts of the world paid tributes to him for his creative contributions to the world of cinema while many South Koreans immediately denounced him because they felt that an abuser was not representative of their country’s art. As for me, I know that I will never be able to return to his cinema with the innocence of my first viewing but I will always owe Kim Ki-duk for showing me the beauty as well as the ugliness of human existence through his inimitable cinema.