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A director who saw a movie for the first time when he was 32 and some years later became an habitué of the most prestigious European cinema festivals.
Kim Ki-duk is probably one of the most famous representatives of South Korea's art cinema. His movies have won the prizes of the most prestigious European cinema festivals, but in his own country they constantly fail. South Koreans say that his movies are "scary", "dangerous", "horrifying" and "too Europeanish". Maybe it's all about director's distinctive style that is really different from most of the South Korea's directors. Maybe it's all about the topics he raises in his films. Such unusual for South Korea choices of plot and it's exposition on screen are partly explained by the biography of the maitre.
Kim Ki-duk was born in 1960 in a small mountainous village. When he was 9 years old, the family moved to Seoul. Because of financial difficulties, at the age of 16 Kim dropped out from school and went to work at the factory. When he was 20, he went to the army, to the infantry. When he was in his twenties he was serving in the army and also volunteering in a church, helping blind people. He even studied for a preacher, but didn't finish the education.
The hard conditions in which Kim grew up obviously had some impact on him and partly determined the plots of his future movies. If you know his biography, you are not surprised that most of his heroes are people from the low social classes (for example, gangsters in "Crocodile" and "Bad Guy" or a burglar in "Empty House"). Kim Ki-duk says that he makes films about lumpens because he wants his viewers to know what life is really like. Nontrivial choice of plots for his movies he explained in one of the interviews saying this:
"I see something that I don't understand and then make a movie to clear this up."
The maitre carries the inner conflicts of the heroes to their limits, his movies are full of violent scenes. The director unlike the most of South Korea's cinema representatives is not ashamed of filming the problems of Korean society. The most critical ones are "Address Unknown" and "The Coast Guard". I think, the brutality of his work together with its topics scares off the South Korean audience.
By 1990 Kim who liked drawing since childhood found resources to make his dream come true and went to study to the Paris College of Arts. There he worked as a street artist – that was his main way to earn a living. One of the most amazing facts of his biography is that he watched a movie in France when he was 32 for the first time. Before that he had never been to cinema, thinking that watching and truly understanding a movie is available only for the educated people (he didn't think that of himself of course). First movies that he saw and that influenced him ta lot were according to his own words "The Silence of the Lambs" (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf" (Leos Carax, 1991). Exactly those movies made a South Korean student to really think about connecting his life with the cinema.
After returning home Kim decided to try being a script writer. In 1995 for his script he won first prize of a competition organized by KOFIC. He spent his prize money in 1996 making his debut movie "Crocodile". During the period from 1996 to 2008 Kim annually released at least one movie. Released in 1998 "Birdcage Inn" drew attention of Western critics. Since then Kim Ki-duk became an habitué of the most prestigious European cinema festivals, and in 2004 he got Small Golden Lion for "Empty House" in Venice and a Silver Bear for "Samaria" in Berlin.
"Empty House" poster
The next big award ("Un Certain Regard" prize of Cannes) Kim got only in 2011 for "Arirang". This is a very personal film that Kim Ki-duk made by himself completely (he is the director, the script writer, the cameraman, the film editor, the sole actor). "Arirang" is a traditional Korean song that is performed both when people are sad and when they are happy. This is the name of a mountain pass which lyrical heroine's lover is crossing when he leaves her. In Kim's life and work this movie also became kind of a pass between what was before and after the crisis he was suffering from in 2008-2011. In 2008 while filming "Dream" an actress almost died, ex-students of Kim turned their backs on him and went to the producer who promised a lot of money. The consequence was a long personal and work crisis of the Korean maitre. "Arirang" is a half-documentary about director coping with his feelings and about why he has decided to return to the cinema industry.
In 2001 Kim Ki-duk also released "Amen" that was kind of a first attempt at filming after his long absence. And a year later he won 5 awards of a Venice Film Festival at once for his "Pieta". After it was released no one had any doubts that Kim Ki-duk not only successfully handled his crisis but also changed his way of filming a bit, remaining unpredictable and unique.
Kim Ki-duk with the main award of the 69th Venice Film Festival
It's interesting that he wrote the scripts to all his movies himself. The more curious thing is that some of his movies were filmed without any script at all. For example, the most known among Russian audience Kim's movie "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring" didn't have a clear script. All that filming group had in the beginning of the filming were small descriptions of every season. The director also said in one of the interviews that he always gladly changes the script in the middle of filming if he thinks this is necessary or if he finds new perspectives. It makes his movies more lively and adds unexpected plot twists. It also makes his style of filming close to the style of early American independent (remember Cassavetes' "Shadows" filmed without a script) and the directors of French new wave.
Kim Ki-duk as a Buddhist monk in the "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring"
In Kim Ki-duk's movies images play more important role than speech. In the "Empty House" you can hear no more than 200 words in an hour and a half. Moreover, according to maitre's opinion words are often deceitful and meaningless. A director doesn't need to make the heroes talk a lot to show their inner feelings and emotions – he expresses them using heroes' actions, even violent ones. However Kim's movies have almost no "violence for violence" – he sees it more as a sign language, through which those who speak less can express their thoughts: the director claims that his heroes are almost speechless because of the traumas they have experienced in the past.
"Bad Guy" poster
Kim's work is full of metaphors. In the movie "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring" Kim allegorically speaks about different stages of human life and cyclical existence. The final scene of "Bad Guy" in which the main hero takes the girl to the seashore shows what heroes gained rejecting the romanticism of a criminal world and middle class values. The main hero is a symbol of fate himself. The director talks about "Bad Guy":
"Everyone wants to be born in good environment, live and die with dignity. But something can happen in life that will enter it without the warning. The actions of other people can turn over your life and you will get used to it without your will. In 2001 despite all the attempts to limit myself in a mad city I realized surprisingly that I live as a "bad guy". The main hero is a man who radiates unhappiness from his birth. A man of darkness… the one, who destroys a woman's life with an innocent look on his face. His actions are so rude that it seems he is a devil. I prefer to call him"fate".
The meaning that Kim Ki-duk puts into his films is not always obvious and simple. Everyone will find something "theirs" in his work.