Arirang (South Korea, 2011)

With fifteen features of considerable quality completed between 1996 and 2008, Kim Ki-duk is one of the most prolific filmmakers to have emerged in the era of festival economy, yet his latest release arrives following a strange three year hiatus. Arirang could be crudely – or cruelly – dubbed, ‘The Madness of Kim Ki-duk’, as it focuses on the South Korean director’s self-imposed exile in an isolated area due to a sustained period of personal and professional crisis. Kim’s work has achieved international art-house success, but has been routinely rejected by domestic audiences, and an unfortunate incident on the set of Dream (2008), when leading actress Lee Na-young almost died while filming the climactic hanging scene, left the director traumatised. Admittedly, the initial impression is that Arirang is going to be a self-indulgent exercise about a once-celebrated artist slowly going off the deep end in the middle of nowhere. Writing for the trade publication Variety after the film’s Cannes screening in 2011, Leslie Felperin insisted that watching Arirang was, “An experience that can be likened only to being stuck next to a drunk in a bar who keeps reminding you he used to be famous, all his friends are bastards and he now understands the meaning of life.” Yet the title of Arirang indicates that Kim is not trying to claim that he has achieved a state of higher knowledge as it is an ancient Korean word that does not have any direct meaning, although it is suggestive of longing and suffering.

Arirang is an unflinching self-portrait that begins with Kim living in a mountainside cabin without any central heating or running water, having retreated from the local film industry. Those familiar with Kim from the extra features on the DVD releases of such titles as The Isle (2000) and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) may be shocked by how dramatically the director has aged in recent years: his face is full of worry-lines and his previously cropped black hair is now unruly and grey. Despite seeming to be incapable of interacting with the world that exists beyond his hiding place, Kim still knows how to structure a film so that his arguments maintain interest and do not degenerate into a mean-spirited rant. In order to conduct this self-examination, Kim adopts three personas: the reclusive filmmaker, the curious interviewer (who he plays with his hair tied-up), and a ‘shadow’ Kim. When he is not preparing food, or just staring into space, Kim verbally lashes out at past collaborators such as Jang Hoon, who achieved success by directing the Kim-scripted thriller Rough Cut (2008), then signed-up with a major studio because he could, ‘not resist the temptation of capitalism.’ If these interview sections have the feel of a particularly vitriolic video diary, there are other developments that provide a fact/fiction dynamic: Kim is often disturbed by the sound of knocking at his door, and in the final stretch, the director loads bullets into a homemade silver gun before driving into the city.

Reporting from Cannes 2011 for The Film Stage, Raffi Asdourian stated that, “the film should be released for free online since it’s the kind that most people would not want to pay for”, although Kim was clearly seeking catharsis rather than a distribution deal. With the director’s tortured psychological state dominating the film, Arirang is a comeback that announces the return of a significant talent without actually winning over any new admirers. However, it obviously served as a long-overdue outpouring for Kim, and will more than satisfy the curiosity of any devotees who have wondered what happened to him during his prolonged absence from art-house release schedules. In a pared-down manner, the film is a summary of sorts of his life and work to date, with a central ‘character’ trying to come to terms with past actions or events, only to fall into the abyss. Kim’s armed trip to civilisation not only echoes the scene in The Coast Guard (2002), in which a traumatised soldier struggles to remain calm while in the city on leave, but also the director’s reported visit to a police station to ask for permission to make and use guns for one of his projects. Kim may complain that, ‘the camera captures the world as is, but there’s too much embellishment’, yet the film is so raw, that when he exclaims, ‘I’m coming to kill you!’, as his vehicle approaches the urban centre, such exaggeration seems all too real. Confrontational and compelling, Arirang is classic Kim.

Arirang opens at the ICA Theater in London on June 8th, 2012 with screenings in other regional UK theaters to follow.