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Among my favorite movies is Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring by Korean director Kim Ki-duk. Does that name ring any bells for you?3-Iron? The Isle? No?

If you don’t know who Kim Ki-duk is, then you might want to skip his newest film, Arirang. If you didn’t already have some respect for Kim, you might walk out of the theater muttering about self-indulgent crap. “Who is this self-pitying movie director weeping on-camera, and why am I wasting my time watching him?”

But as a fan of Kim’s, I was enticed. In 2008 Kim followed J.D. Salinger and Greta Garbo into seclusion. There was an accident on the set of one of his films. An actress nearly died, and apparently it scarred him deeply. Nobody had seen nor heard from Kim in many years. Nobody knew if he would ever direct again.

Arirang is Kim’s home movie, made during his seclusion.

Getting to the Point

Kim Ki-duk reveals his seclusion
Kim Ki-duk reveals his seclusion

Kim calls Arirang a drama, but it really does play like a home movie. For ten minutes, we watch his daily life — living in a tent pitched inside a remote cabin. We see just how good he is with his hands, as he perfects his home-made espresso machine.

He finally gets around to the point: interviewing himself about his seclusion. He videotapes his questions and answers on different days. Then in the editing he frames the sequence as a linear Q&A. This “conversation” seems to be a form of self-therapy.

His questions are aggressive: “Kim Ki-duk, what is your problem? Why can’t you make films any more?” and “Why are you living like this for 3 years, drinking, since 2008. Is it because of that accident? Is that why you quit? Tell me, you bastard.”

His answers are respectful and honest: “Thanks for asking me, Kim Ki-duk.” Yes, the accident scarred him and sent him into retreat. It made him question his entire career. In movies, he says, death comes far too easily. What is film, compared to death? Death is just white becoming black. There is no hope in death. It shouldn’t be so casual in a film.

Asked why he’s shooting this movie, he says “I film myself because I must film something.”

Musings and Regret

He thanks all the film festivals that helped him reach a wider audience. Then he undercuts the idea of festival awards, noting the irony of winning awards in Korea, for having won international acclaim, for making movies that are unflattering to Korea.

Kim later brings up something Korean followers might have known about (I didn’t). Some colleagues of his, who said they would stay with him, left to make their own movies, taking projects with them. “I lost my sense of trust,” he says. It obviously felt like a betrayal to him and maybe even helped drive him to seclusion. He’s obviously trying to be big about it, while acknowledging how personally devastating it was.

He watches a video copy of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring — his film about regret and renewal — and it moves him to tears (as it does me).

Is any of this of interest to an audience? Is Kim just wallowing in self-pity? “Arirang” is the song Koreans sing when they are sad or lonely, he says. Then he sings it. But will an audience want to hear the song?

Drama from Home Movies

If the entire movie were Kim’s confession, it would be hard to take it seriously as art. But Kim gives his audience a surprising ending. He takes a few ideas from earlier — his skill with things mechanical, and his newfound respect for death in film — and acts out a scene that we can presume is purely fiction. It seems to be a way to add artifice on top of his very sincere confession, to produce something more like drama than a home movie. It also seems to be an acknowledgement of his re-entry into dramatic filmmaking.

Certainly, it would be easy to dismiss Arirang as bad “reality” video, and no doubt many will. I suspect there is something deeper going on, and those who care about Kim might be interested.

Arirang is a difficult film to recommend it. It’s also difficult to dismiss.