Dream (South Korea, 2008)

Those familiar with the films of Kim Ki-duk will not be surprised to learn that the protagonists of his fifteenth feature, Dream, find themselves in a tortured relationship that involves self-mutilation and suicidal impulses. Yet they may not expect these familiar themes to be steeped in surrealism, as Kim tells a tale of metaphysical connectedness. Jin (Jô Odagiri), is first seen driving his car at night, following the woman who has just broken up with him (Park Ji-a), but when his vehicle is suddenly involved in a collision, Jin wakes up and the preceding scene is revealed to have been a dream.  Shaken by how real the dream seemed to be, Jin drives out to the stretch of road where the crash ‘occurred’ and discovers that an accident actually has taken place: Ran (Lee Na-yeong), who has recently separated from her boyfriend, is found to have been the hit-and-run driver, but when questioned by the police, insists that she was asleep at home at the time of the incident. Discussing the case with Ran’s doctor (Jang Mi-hie) leads Jin to confirm his suspicion that he has caused the accident as, whatever he dreams, Ran acts out in her sleep. Ran is not charged with dangerous driving due to her doctor’s diagnosis, but Jin’s dreams continue to cause problems: when he dreams about his former lover, Ran ends up back in the bed of her ex-boyfriend (Kim Tae-hyeon). Jin and Ran try to stop sleeping, but are only delaying inevitable tragedy.

Dream is the kind of film that audience members will either find interesting or infuriating as Kim allows a number of developments that will test the patience of those making pedantic mental notes rather than considering the director’s ideas: Jin and Ran could keep different sleeping schedules, not lie down together on a comfortable bed, or drink cups of strong coffee. However, to criticise Dream on these grounds would be at the expense of recognising the multiple levels of reality suggested by Kim’s assembly of elements (reality, dreams, the question of who is dreaming), or his unflinching account of a couple united then separated by unforeseen circumstances. Kim briefly treads into horror genre territory, with Ran’s doctor conveniently explaining the premise when she asserts that ‘a dream is also a person’s fear of the future’, while stating that her patient is ‘suffering from a severe case of sleepwalking’, and insisting that, ‘there are event cases where people commit murder and don’t remember it.’ From here, Kim charts the stages of Jin and Ran’s relationship: they start out as strangers with similar but not entirely corresponding personal issues (he misses his ex-girlfriend, she no longer cares for her ex-boyfriend). Jin sincerely wants to help Ran, more out of guilt than attraction, but she is reluctant to accept his assistance, only doing so out of necessity when further incidents threaten to occur. Through closely monitoring one another, a deeper bond develops, although it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with their shared condition.

This dark fantasy was regarded as a departure for Kim following the rural drama of The Isle (2000), while it is also far removed from the explicit confrontation of Bad Guy (2001) or the institutional critique of The Coast Guard (2002). Yet there are links to his earlier films and, as is often the case within his work, scenes that reference previously explored scenarios: this is most evident in the emphasis on self-harm, as Dream recalls the most uncomfortable moments of The Isle with Jin and Ran going to extreme lengths to stay awake, or when Ran eventually ‘escapes’ from her predicament while confined by the authorities, as in 3-Iron (2004). The Buddhist statues of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring also reoccur, but Kim’s appreciation of the faith remains largely aesthetic and spirituality does not provide his protagonists with any salvation. The main difference is in the director’s visual style, which previously focused on picaresque landscapes but here takes a fantastical premise and places it within ordinary suburban space: houses, streets, the police station and surrounding areas are shot in a straight-forward manner, making the film resemble a ‘waking dream’ where the situation feels very real, however unlikely it may seem the next morning. The casting adds to the off-kilter tone, with Odagiri delivering his lines in Japanese while the other actors speak in Korean, yet everyone understands each other. If you can follow such logic, Dream should at least raise some tantalising questions about the realms of the subconscious.

Dream is screening on Saturday, March 10th, 2012 at the Japan Society in New York City as part of the Society’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” film program.  For more information and tickets, go to the Japan Society page for this screening here.