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Kim Ki-duk: The vision of the late South Korean director

When Kim Ki-duk made his films, he envisioned life in its most abrasive sensations, humans at their most vulnerable- a world weighed down by inexplicable complexities and an explicable isolation, the profundity of which, though colossally dramatic, is never exaggerated. It is our very own world, as real as pain and as unreal as salvation, balanced on both scales; simultaneously bruised by cognizance and seemingly redeemed by amnesiac patches.

The protagonists in his films are gut-wrenching emotions, primal instincts and latent subconscious- elements that form the basis of each human formation and not the other way round. Here, every individual is an island in itself: we have souls who have either abandoned themselves amidst a vastness invaded by emptiness (The Isle; The Bow; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) or have adjusted themselves to succumb to the daily numbness in switching between geometric spaces and claustrophobic crowds (Moebius, Time, 3-Iron, Pieta).

In emblemising the human condition, Kim Ki-duk wields silence as both the source of and catalytic to action where the characters communicate solely through the mere eloquence of idiosyncratic and sado-masochistic gestures. They are essentially antiheroes, in a Sisyphean dilemma, searching for God/purpose (in a different self) or endeavouring to make amends for the absence of one. They venture into scandalous precincts, and are pushed to the edges of earthiness.

Silence forms the very cornerstone for expression and holds a distinct meaning for each story. It operates both as a sign of resignation and a continual search for voice, or some chance to be heard. In 3 Iron, the woman finds hers at the end, while Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring sees the monk withdrawing himself from the world of language as he drifts closer to enlightenment. In The Bow, the art of conversation takes place through whispers and intimations- silence was a form of speech intelligible to just the two castaways.

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics / Cineclick Asia

The titles of the films whether they denote something abstract or tangible, are totems for the people who think, feel and act, restricted to the vicinity of mind and body. They tread thoughts like one treads roads, consume and are consumed by passion, and writhe in the viscosity of dead-ends. The 3 Iron golf club that Tae-suk uses to maim his rivals, and in lonely spaces as some kind of probation of winning at life, becomes him in the process. The vindictive spirit of the boatwoman is symbolic of The Isle marking its territory, claiming ownership of what falls strictly under its zones. The Bow that served the dual purpose of shooting and making music represented the colours of its owner’s mood.

There is a certain engulfment, whether of pathos or wakefulness, that occurs following a detachment that is all-too-familiar for those who are used to life. It swerves the path of present, culminating either in a transcendental ‘death’ or a retreat to the normalcy of past, connected in a circle. The conflict in his films is the self’s relentless urge to stabilize the self and the use of violence as an act of escape rather than rebellion. Even when that stability is threatened by external forces, as in Pieta or The Bow, it is a conflict that remains primarily internal, resorting to corporeal and psychological chastisement- and finally, death that unties them from all these bondage.

In 3 Iron, this is resolved with the woman finding a new flame in the shadow of her old husband, connecting herself to something which perhaps exists only in memory, a vague but deeply entrenched splinter, that revives itself every time it cuts deeper. It is also a playback to the other leitmotif, invisibility- of love and meaning, which when seeded by the stranger culminates steadily in a weightless union. In Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, the wheel of samsara keeps turning to catch up with the pace of seasonal and personal change. It chronicles the journey of life, aiming to cleanse the soul with a Buddhist understanding of its meaning.

Credit: Kim Ki-duk Film

Ki-duk often incorporates religious imagery into his floating world, notably in sombre tones, and seeks to probe into the conceptions and contraventions of the imperfect mind. Knowledge comes as a form of energy, bearing with it both constructive and destructive forces, stretching temporal horizons to some sort of infinity. In The Bow, the fortune-teller had the ‘three jewels’ tattooed beside her left eye; the triad of yellow, red and blue symbolising enlightenment, ethics and community. When the three arrows strike the Buddha’s image on the boat, she could assumedly read and interpret the signifier and signified. Pieta carves a perfect statue of the lady of the sorrows, in the figure of the mother mourning her deceased son; only this time, she is silently a Wrathful God inside, though her emotions later transmute to pity, she never lets it get the better of her. She punishes the oedipal Lucifer like a deity would, exacting her revenge by first making him a human and thus, weak so that death becomes the only anaesthetic to grief.

Predominately a dystopic domain, Ki-duk’s esoterica is a redefinition of cinema in that it is a raw revelation of our inherent darkness and disorders. Instead of attempting to solve the puzzle, he rearranges the pieces of the human soul by syncing it with its demons.

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Srimayee Ganguly

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