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The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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If you can get past the subject matter, Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is bold, surreal, cinematic, and emotionally wrenching.

The subject matter can be a hurdle, though. Castration, rape, and incest are not most people’s cup of tea. It’s only fair to scare away anyone with a low tolerance for such things. In fact, I decided to be blunt about the plot in this review, so if you’re squeamish, try reading a different review.

One other thing you should know: Moebius has no dialogue. It’s not exactly a silent film. There is a soundtrack. People scream and make noise, but they don’t speak. They communicate, as characters in silent films did, through gestures and looks. As often as not, words aren’t even necessary to convey what’s going on.

Medea, Freud; Freud, Medea

A wife (Lee Eun-Woo) discovers her husband (Cho Jae-Hyun) has been having an affair. She tries to cut off his penis, but he prevents her. In her Medean pique, she storms downstairs to the where their teenage son (Seo Young-Joo) is sleeping and instead cuts off his penis. She ensures it can never be reattached by swallowing it.

The shopkeeper gives the son a handle job
The shopkeeper gives the son a handle job

Father googles transplant options, and consults with a doctor to have his own penis removed and frozen. Perhaps you’ll see where this is going.

Meanwhile, the son gets arrested. Some older boys had saved him from an attack by younger bullies, but then the older boys forced him to join them in the corner shop, where they gang raped the shopkeeper. The son tried not to participate, but they forced him at knifepoint. Obviously he wasn’t able to penetrate the victim, but he went through the motions, almost as much a victim as the shopkeeper. Ironically, the son was arrested and imprisoned, apparently too ashamed to show the police that he could not possibly have been guilty of rape.

Dickless, the father looks for advice on alternative routes to sexual pleasure. Scraping bloody wounds into your feet with a stone is what the search engine recommends, and it works. Father prints out the advice and sneaks the secret into the jail where his son is held, so neither father nor son has to live without orgasms, so long as there are a lot of band-aids and thick socks around the house.

Knife In Flesh

After his release, the son returns to the shop where the victim still works. He calmly, peacefully, offers her a knife. He seems to be offering her a chance for revenge. She stabs him in the shoulder which, to him, turns out to be just as pleasurable as the scabbing of the feet. Gently working the handle of the knife, the victim gives the son an orgasm, finding some sexual pleasure in it herself.

A member of the gang walks in. The fearful shopkeeper leads him on, as though she were ready for more rape. But as soon as she can get a good grip, she uses the knife to cut off his penis. While the rapist is still in shock, the son comes out of hiding, grabs the offending member, and runs out of the shop. A surreal chase ensues as the bleeding rapist chases after his dickless crony carrying his severed penis.

Bleeding, the rapist returns. The son returns in time to protect the shopkeeper by stabbing the rapist in the shoulder.

Then things really get strange.

In the last act, there is a successful penis transplant. Relationships change. The Medean plot becomes Oedipal, and the whole thing ends in tragedy.

Psychoanalysis

Moebius feels like a dream, clung to in the steam of a hot morning shower. It’s as though I’m on the verge of understanding the film as the id-level imagery of some horrible event from the previous day. The fact that it’s called Moebius seems to suggest that there’s some one-line solution to the film’s puzzle, but I don’t think the film is as simple as that.

A moebius strip makes something continuous that had been discontinuous. So innocent boys are tainted by the sexual misbehavior of their fathers. Rape is like being stabbed with a knife, but in this world, stabbing a man gives pleasure instead of pain. Betrayal is an emotional pain so deep it will drive you crazy, and only forgiveness, not more betrayal, will let you escape its infinite loop.

When you’re not sure what to make of your dreams, look at their emotional tone for a more insightful reading. In the case of Moebius the tone is classical, fatalistic tragedy, the disfigured offspring of Oedipus, Medea, and Freud. There is beauty in tragedy. It can be moving, wrenching, or sad, but there is always some pathos, some human sympathy for our mortal doom.

FCUK

On the other hand, it can be hard to see the beauty of tragedy through the shocking, gory, and grisly details of Moebius. I would say that Kim is using these violations as visual and dramatic swear words. In The Stuff of Thought, Linguist Steven Pinker explains that swear words (“taboo words”) cut through our usual channels of communication and stimulate deeper parts of the brain. That can explain why it’s hard to look at the logo of FCUK (a brand of clothing called Fight Club U.K.) and not do a double-take.

The violations in Moebius seem to have the same effect. It’s almost impossible, at least for this male, not to be constantly fazed by the explicit and repeated castrations. For women, I wonder if the return of the rapists to the victim has the same effect. (Or as a male, is Kim Ki-duk not necessarily trying to give equal time to women?)

And have you forgotten — I frequently do — that the film is presented without dialogue? Such a notable, unconventional storytelling device and you can’t even remember that it happened. That’s the kind of walloping emotional power that Kim’s films have — unless you want to argue that its power comes from the same cheap trick as using swear words in your advertising campaign.

Having seen some of Kim’s other films, he doesn’t strike me as a taunting bully or a P.T. Barnum. Unlike recent boundary-pushing horror films, Moebius doesn’t feel like the work of a cynical filmmaker calculating how to punish an audience. Kim seems instead to be exorcising personal demons through his art. I feel more moved than manipulated by his work. Moebius left me drained and depressed, but not gratuitously so.

I’m just glad these are his dreams and not mine.