From Darkness, Kim Ki-duk
A true-to-the-core creator whose cinematic violence raises awareness for society’s underbelly, or a rotten-at-the-heart exploiter who directs with abuse? Kim Ki-duk (1960-2020) is no doubt a controversial figure both for his films and personal life – he is the only South Korean director to have won top prizes at Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals; yet he remains a despicable son of his mother country, living in self-exile after being accused of sexual misconduct, and died of Covid-19 in Latvia last year.
Beyond dispute, Kim made his name as a champion of the Korean New Wave with a series of violent yet aesthetically challenging features. His directorial debut, Crocodile (1996), heralded the arrival of a self-taught maverick, who caught international sensation with his shocking yet beautifully crafted dramas. Not for the faint of heart, nor mind, his films are morbid and deliberately antagonistic towards the audience – some regard them as highly accomplished works of art, unflinchingly depicting poverty and brutality that spark important debates in society; others criticise his extreme human cruelty and cinematic assaults on women for being perverted, misogynistic and sadistic.
From the libidinous The Isle (2000), the Buddhist transcendent Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), to the visceral and morally complex Pieta (2012), Kim’s films cohere into a compelling body of work permeated with religious iconography, psychosexual characterisations and sociocultural allegory. Conceiving a world sometimes circumscribed by water, and sometimes engulfed by darkness, the auteur used his camera to reveal anger and agony, expressing brutal love and solitude in sensational imagery and haunting narratives with a vision grounded in sin and redemption – for those who believe in it.
“I try to discover a good scent by digging into a garbage heap,” Kim once said of his approach to filmmaking. Whether it is the scent of heaven or the stink of hell, it’s for you to decide.
DCP of Crocodile and 35mm prints of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring , Samaritan Girl , The Bow courtesy of the Korean Film Archive