Review: Kim Ki-Duk’s hyper-personal ‘Arirang’ dares you to stay seated

05.17.11 8 years ago 6 Comments

While I’m busy kicking my cinematic heroes in the balls today, I might as well finally share some thoughts on the new film by Kim Ki-Duk.

Since seeing “The Isle” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, I’ve greatly admired this outrageous, ambitious Korean director, and several of his films have become favorites of mine in the years since.  In particular, I adore “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring,” a meditative piece that seemed to mark a new maturity for him.  For the last three years, though, he’s been suffering from a crippling depression that has kept him away from filmmaking, due in large part to a near-fatal accident involving an actress on the set of “Dream,” his last film. 

This is not a narrative film, but a documentary of sorts, a diary of depression as he tries to deal with his artistic block and his newly discovered fears about what could go wrong while making a movie.  It is a nakedly personal film, and it is also almost completely unwatchable.

Big claim, especially when you’re talking about a filmmaker as accomplished as Kim Ki-Duk, but this is a movie that was made for exactly one person:  him.  He made this as a way of getting over his fears and his sorrows, and it is excruciating to witness.  The title, “Arirung,” comes from a Korean folk song sung at times of great personal sadness, and just to make sure you understand how sad he is, Kim Ki-Duk sings the song at least six times.  Loudly.  And each time, it is like some piece of him is being torn out.  And each time, it is so uncomfortable that it drove fresh groups of viewers from the theater.  I haven’t seen any other movie here at the festival generate this kind of walk-out traffic, and while I stayed for the entire thing, I do understand the impulse.

What pushes this from the awkwardly personal, which I could support, to the nearly-embarrassing is the narcissistic ambition that Kim Ki-Duk is unable to mask in the movie.  While he talks quite a bit about how the accident with the actress rattled him and how he couldn’t live with himself if he killed someone for his art, he spends far more time complaining about how he hasn’t won more major festival awards.  In particular, he has his eye on Cannes, and that made for a strange sort of echo chamber while watching it here.  He makes sure we see the shelf of awards that he has already won for his work, and just to remind us of the power of his art, he watches one particularly beautiful sequence from “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring” and weeps openly at it.  This is pure indulgence, and part of me wonders if the Cannes programmers invited him out of a sense of moral obligation, afraid of what he might do to himself if he didn’t get the invite.

The other thing that bothers me here is that he’s complaining about three years off from filmmaking as if that is the end of the world.  Maybe he should sit down with Lynne Ramsay while he’s here.  Maybe he should get hold of Guillermo Del Toro and talk it out.  I know he’s made 15 films in 13 years, so he’s used to a certain pace, but things happen, and in this case, it’s self-imposed, not industry-imposed.  He’s not a victim here.  He spooked himself, he got afraid of consequences, and so he’s been out of it for a few years.  Maybe he should spend an afternoon in conversation with John Landis, who could tell him how to pick up and continue without being a giant crybaby about it.  I’ve witnessed first-hand incidents involving Landis on multiple occasions where people said and did the most intensely insensitive things to Landis’s face, and he has always handled it with as much grace as is humanly possible under those circumstances.  Here, Kim Ki-Duk actually ends up having long conversations with himself in which he complains about his lack of awards and his near-miss with the actress and his inability to work, and it just becomes numbing after a while.

I hope this is a mere speedbump for this very talented director, and that he returns to form soon.  And if he really can’t imagine making another film, if the responsibility is too much for him to accept, then I don’t begrudge him that choice.  But I don’t ever want to witness “Arirung” again, and I can’t imagine any audience anywhere in the world sitting through it, either.

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