This month, Taewon Entertainment, under the auspices of the Korean Film Archive, has released a boxset of four films by legendary director Kim Ki-young. It has been over a decade since the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival hosted the first major retrospective of the director’s work, leading to requests from festivals the world over to do the same. In 1998, a retrospective was held at the Berlin International Film Festival, and more recently, there have been screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, in San Fransisco and New York, as well as last month at the Korean Film Council in Seoul. These events created expectations that a release on DVD would be forthcoming. Which prompts the question: was it worth the wait?
To begin with, we are treated to only four of the 23 surviving films, and those four prints have more than their fair share of fading, scratches and dust specks. One film is even missing a couple of reels. Most of the films and supplements are plagued with faulty English subtitles. Furthermore, The Housemaid (하녀, 1960), the most eagerly anticipated title, is not included in this set (it will be released separately). So just why must you own this set?
Because Kim Ki-young was without a doubt one of the most distinctive filmmakers working not only in Korea, but in the world. The director, who seems to have developed a fondness for B-films in the 1970s, was not averse to to mixing genres, and his stories are often a curious blend of mystery, horror, supernatural, melodrama and exploitation. It should come as no surprise that in stories in which rape, murder, human sacrifice (and mice) figure prominently, extreme camerawork was called for, and it is there in spades: colored gels, intentional blurring, rapid pans and zooms, sudden close-ups, wacky camera angles and lurid color, much to the delight of fans everywhere.
Quite unlike his contemporaries, Kim presents a world in chaos, peopled by predatory females, cowardly males driven by the basest of impulses, where unquestioned patriarchal authority no longer exists. Sexual politics is what interests him most. All this might be heavy going were it not for the abundant flourishes of brazen humor that add spice to the proceedings, such as when a woman justifies her husband’s non-consensual vasectomy, invoking the “Family Planning Act” (The Insect Woman, 1972). When asked what audience he had in mind when making these subversive and often shocking films, Kim responded that they were made for women, as housewives represented the bulk of filmgoers.
What is baffling is that these movies were made under the most unfavorable circumstances imaginable, during the repressive military dictatorship of Park Chun-hee, when everything from the rearing of children to the workplace was highly regimented. On top of which, in spite of the reclusive director’s utter disregard for commercial considerations, his pictures continued to achieve box-office success well into the 1970s, and went on to capture several awards. What is perhaps even more remarkable, considering the bizarre nature of his films, is that by all accounts, the director led a relatively stable life: he grew up in a loving home, studied dentistry at Seoul National University, married a classmate and remained faithful until their untimely death in a house fire in 1998.
Goryeojang (고려장, 1963)
The earliest film in the collection, Goryeojang features superb B&W lensing and outstanding performances. A woman arrives with her sole surviving son (Guryong) to a village in order to marry a man with ten sons by four previous marriages (yes, I’m not making this up!). The village is beset by recurring famines and has an unfortunate tradition of sending its elderly to the Sacred Peak to die (apparently, abstinence was not an option). The village shaman, scorned by the groom, places a curse on his ten sons. Shortly after their wedding, the sons play a cruel trick on Guryong and he is maimed for life. The woman leaves her husband to live with her son on a plot of land he has given her. The years go by, and the bitter rivalry between the ten sons intensifies when they learn of Guryong’s impending wedding. Shortly after his wedding, tragedy strikes and he is alone again with his aging mother. Many more years pass when a prolonged drought pits the brothers, who own the sole well in the village, against Guryong, who has been using his supply of food to extort land from all the villagers.
Persons with disablities appear to have been a recurring the motif in Kim’s oeuvre, stemming perhaps from his experience as a filmmaker for the USIS during the Korean War, where he must have witnessed many such casualties. In this film, he handles them with a refreshing realism and lack of affectation. The sets and makeup are spectacular, as is the set of the Sacred Peak that Kim reserves until toward the film’s breathtaking finale. The adult Guryong is performed by Kim Jin-kyu, who also starred in some of Shin Sang-ok’s finest movies and Jeon Young-sun, the saccharine daughter in Mother and Guest, also has a small but affecting role.
Two reels of film are lost and during seventeen minutes of the movie there is no image, only the soundtrack. The dialogue and missing scenes are provided in the accompanying booklet. The English subtitles on this film are excellent.
The Insect Woman (충녀, 1972)
Myung-ja (Yun Yeo-jong), a schoolgirl traumatized by the loss of her “father”, is coerced by her mother into working as a barmaid in order to help put her older brother through college. The inexperienced girl falls into the hands of the shrewd proprieter and madam (Park Jeong-ja). At the club, Myung-ja is introduced to Mr. Kim ( Nam Gung-won), a customer suffering from impotency and henpecked by a domineering wife. When the middle-aged man consents to make the teenager his mistress, a vicious and often bitingly humorous battles ensues between the two women. Not since the Japanese Angel Guts series have I seen a film as audacious, inventive and perverse as this one, with its frank portrayal of the cannibalistic relations between the sexes. Perhaps the film’s most famous image is that of the sex scene on a glass floor covered with colored candies. Yoon is wonderful as the feisty Myung-ja, as is Nam Gung-won as the fumbling Mr. Kim.
Of the four films included in the set, this transfer suffers the most from every imaginable sort of damage—fading, dirt, scratches and shifting color balance—in addition to the added distraction of burned-in Spanish subtitles.
Promise of the Flesh (육체의 약속, 1975)
This story is a remake of Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn, which no longer exists. When we first encounter Hyo-soon (Kim Ji-mi), she is boarding the train for her hometown to meet the only man she has ever loved, a meeting we are told will never take place. Through flashbacks, we learn that while serving time in prison for unpremeditated murder, Hyo-soon was allowed by a compassionate parole officer (Park Jeong-ja) to make the very same journey several years earlier.
Along the way, the two women are greeted by a young man (Lee Jeong-gil) who offers them a lunch box from the train station, a gesture that would later hold great significance for Hyo-soon. The woman had until then experienced nothing but grief at the hands of men, having been raped several times. Her loss of faith in humanity, compounded by the loss of her mother, left her with little reason to live, and she had already made repeated attempts to take her own life. The chance meeting of the young man restored her will to live, and the two lovers vowed to meet again after her release from prison in two years.
The haunting theme song and the uncharacteristic use of voice-over convey Hyo-soon’s longing and contribute to the air of melancholy that permeates this, the most subjective and intensely personal film in the collection. Long stretches of time pass on the train without any dialogue, punctuated only by the sound of the train rolling along the tracks. The little details of ordinary life: a coke bottle rolling along the floor, the parole officer feeding pink candies to her prisoner, the young man blowing cigarette smoke rings to amuse the women—acquire an added gravity as they are recalled in flashbacks. The frantic attempts by the couple to embrace one another through a prison wall, efforts thwarted by the parole officer and several policemen, make a vivid impression, and Park Jin-pyo made use of this scene in You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명, 2005). The print shows the effects of age and is covered with dust specks. The English subtitles are awkward, with many grammatical errors.
Ieodo (이어도, 1977)
What begins as a press junket for a new hotel on Jeju Island to be named after the mythical island of the film’s title turns into a supernatural murder mystery when one of the journalists (Choi Yoon-seok) aboard the ship disappears overnight after a quarrel with Seonwoo Hyun (Kim Jeong-cheol), the mastermind behind the promotional event. In order to clear his name of any suspicion of wrongdoing, Seonwoo Hyun, together with the reporter’s boss (Park Am) head for Parang island, inhabited only by a population of aging sex-starved female divers. The blend of mystery, supernatural, pseudo-science and graphic sexual imagery likening sex to the mating of insects recalls the tales of Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo. The camera takes full advantage of the beauty of the ocean, the island’s jagged coastline and actress Lee Hwa-si’s stunning features. Toss in an exuberant sexually-charged shamanistic ritual (performed by Park Jeong-ja) and a shocking scene of necrophilia, and it adds up to an experience you won’t soon forget. The subtitles are frustratingly bad and the faded print has loads of dust specks, but the colors are more saturated than those of the other films in the set.
Disc One: Goryeojang
Commentary by Lee Yeon-ho (film critic) and Kim Dae-seung (director, Blood Rain)
Directors on Kim Ki-young (Kim Hong-joon, 2006) 48 min.
The list of 22 directors who pay tribute to Kim Ki-young on this featurette reads like a who’s who of some of Chungmuro’s brightest young filmmakers. Here’s the rundown: Kim Gok, Kim Dae-seung, Kim Sun, Kim Ji-woon, Kim Tae-young, Ryoo Seung-wan, Min Dong-hyun, Park Ki-hyung, Park Soo-young, Park Jae-young, Park Jin-pyo, Park Chan-wook, Byun Young-joo, Bong Joon-ho, Song Il-gon, Shin Jane, Um Hye-jung, Oh Seung-wook, Im Sang-soo, Jang Jun-hwan, Jung Yoon-chul and Jung Ji-woo.
The prevailing sentiment is that of an accumulation of lost opportunities: regret that the Kim Ki-young did not live to complete what was to have been his ‘comeback’ film, Diabolical Woman; regret at not having had the occasion to speak with the director, or in the case of Bong Joon-ho, not realizing at the time he was filming The Host that one of his actresses had actually worked alongside Kim. Some of them acknowledged their indebtedness to the director, including Kim Ji-woon and Park Jin-pyo, both of whom adapted scenes of his for use in their own films. In addition to scenes from films included in the set, are clips from numerous other of Kim’s films from the 70s and 80s, as well as from The Housemaid. The directors are nicely photographed, presumably in their studio offices. Special mention must be made of the grammatically correct, idiomatic English subtitles, the best of the set.
Disc Two: The Insect Woman
Commentary by Kim Young-jin (film critic) and Bong Joon-ho (director, The Host)
Kim Ki-young on Kim Ki-young (1997) 35 minutes
This featurette, made on the occasion of the retrospective at the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival, was shot in the director’s home and is divided into eight themes:
I) Reflection of Contemporary Images: Kim Ki-young’s Filmmaking
II) To Hate Ideas and Ideology
III) Cult Film? To Show the Truth
IV) Main Theme: Women and Family
V) To Anticipate Women Dominating Society
VI) Criticisms on the Completion Quality of His Latter Films and His Answer
VII) Depth, Kim Ki-young’s Space Design
VIII) Critical Interest in Kim Ki-young’s Films
Kim talks about the influence Greek plays and Ibsen had on his scriptwriting; his dislike of ‘ism’s’ and ideologies; and his dislike of clear-cut endings, among many other things. Kim seems relaxed in the comfort of his home, taking puffs on his pipe as he delivers his answers, which he appears to be reading from a prepared manuscript.
Disc Three: Promise of the Flesh
Commentary by Chung Sung-il (film critic)
Director Kim Ki-young Special Documentary (52 minutes)
This documentary was made on the occasion of the retrospective of the director’s work at the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival. Director Kim was accompanied by cinematographer Jeong Il-seong and actress Park Jeong-ja at the press conference. The room was practically empty. Clearly choked up and eyes welling with tears, Jeong said that he felt sorry that only one director deigned to attend Kim’s press conference. Know who that was? Hint: he just completed his hundredth film last year.
After a screening of The Housemaid, Kim tells the audience that filmmaking was his hobby, and that he was an amateur director, by which he meant that he was completely self-taught and had no business sense whatsoever. He went on to say that it was thanks to the support of his wife, who produced his films, that he was able to pursue his filmmaking career. It was when as many as 300 films and 1000 videos a year began to inundate the market that Kim discontinued making movies. In 1997, he said, Koreans, maybe sick of watching American films, were starting to watch Korean films again. This documentary also contains the same footage found on Kim Ki-young on Kim Ki-young.
Disc Four: Ieodo
Commentary by Kim Young-jin (film critic) and Oh Seung-wuk (director, Kilimanjaro, 2000)
This handsomely packaged set is the most significant Korean release since last year’s Shin Sang-ok Collection, and both belong in any filmlover’s collection. While one can gripe about the condition of the prints and the poor English subtitling, the selection is a fine one, and opinions are likely to be strongly divided over which film is best. My own favorite? Why, Goryeojang, of course! In the meanwhile, The Housemaid, which screened at Cannes in May, is undergoing restoration by the World Cinema Foundation and will hopefully be released on DVD sometime early next year.
All four discs are NTSC, all-region and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen television.
English, Korean and Japanese subtitles on feature films, bonus materials and commentary tracks.
An 87 page bilingual booklet that includes the missing scenes and dialogue from Goryeojang.