A Korean acquaintance disses his countryman’s films in general and found this latest, Bad Guy, the most objectionable of all. Asserting that every one of his works starts with “hatred” -- later clarified as “misunderstanding” in search of comprehension -- Kim Ki-Duk achieves little box-office success at home or among the expatriate community abroad, nor among the “manneristic”-violence-loving American public, but through festivals has attracted a limited cult of European faithful.
Unschooled in cinema culture and technique, the former factory worker, manual laborer, military non-com, wanderer, anti-bourgeois figure and self-taught painter says his work is sequential, a species of “autobiographical writing with a film camera.” Like Antonin Artaud’s 1938 Theater of Cruelty in seeking answers to unbearable individual and group suffering, that work is filled with casual violence of imagery and character, darkness, a twisted surrealistic logic that he calls “semi-abstract” and a blurring of distinctions between good and evil, love and hate. The stories’ seemingly misogynistic take on eternal male-female war has been decried by most viewers though also defended in places as an accurate rendering of the social prostitution that energizes the world.
Bad Guy, which Kim also scripted, will leave audiences puzzled and then cold, and is nowhere near as sexual and graphic as its ads. Incongruously, the director once admired Gustav Klimt’s soupy romantic Art Nouveau but while street-exhibiting in Munich was converted to the angular eroticism of Expressionist Egon Schiele (“Cool paintings!”), vulgar and obscene to some but which epitomizes and figures in this film as an art book from which a page is ripped and which is later purchased (or stolen) as a gift.
In a play on the theme in which a woman falls for her abductor-abuser -- The Night Porter, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! -- the title figure is Han-gi (Cho Je-Hyun, in his fifth Kim film), a non-verbal small-potatoes gangster who suddenly, brutally kisses a demure college girl seated beside him on a park bench. Beaten bloody by policemen, he refuses to apologize to Sun-hwa (Seo Won), who curses and spits at him and leaves with her bespectacled middle-class boyfriend.
A black-clad knife-scarred pimp who arbitrarily slugs a passerby with a baseball bat, the title’s Han-gi has flatmates Jung-tae (Kim Yoon-Tae) and Myung-soo (Choi Duk-Moon) set the girl up on a pickpocketing charge, for which she must borrow twelve million won and sign a “your face and your body” prostitution contract to repay the loan. Run by a cold and chest-mutilated madam, the brothel faces the bad guy’s balcony, from which he easily slips across the street to observe the twenty-one-year-old’s initiation through a secret two-way mirror.
Prostitutes in every doorway and window, the film’s Seoul red light district is not as grotty, diseased or dangerous as in reality. The other girls are at first jealous of the newcomer’s innocent beauty, but as she changes costumes and wigs white to blue and descends into the Life, they are more accepting, and a loose street camaraderie does exist among vendors, women, neighbors, cops, crooks and pimps. Rain pours down, Han-gi cruises in a Toronado Family SUV, is hit with a heavy brick, pierced with knives and broken plate glass, handcuffed and nearly hanged but miraculously survives to return behind the mirror and fall into some sort of odd tender attachment. Laughably high-pitched, his sole line is, “Love?”
With smitten Myung-soo’s aid, she escapes, is recaptured by Han-gi and taken to a beach where, in a perhaps dream-sequence, a faceless woman in red drowns herself after tearing up two photographs of a woman in red and a man, the pieces minus the heads found by Sun-hwa and taped back together on her mirror. In this grainy ill-lit world scored by rays of light or the brightness of neon, the photos are both record of a past and also strange prophecy, as victimizer and victim move toward a foreseeable conclusion.
Director Kim indicates that he would not mind doing an American remake, perhaps starring Brad Pitt. Body language rather than dialogue, “physical expression rather than negative violence,” however, is not Hollywood’s long suit. The bottom line is that, outside of a coterie that admires this sort of non-mainstream filmsmanship, few would pay to see it. The particular vote here might be a tentative yea, a minority whistle in the wind.
(Released by Lifesize Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)