UK Release date: 8th June 2012
UK Distributor: Terracotta
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Running time: 100 mins
Country: South Korea
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Kim Ki-duk is angry at the world, but more importantly than that, he’s angry with himself. With 15 films in 15 years to his credit, its little wonder Kim Ki-duk had an emotional and creative breakdown on the set of his last movie. It was during the filming of 2008’s Dream that Kim’s life took a drastic turn. While shooting a suicide scene, the lead actress nearly died. She fainted and later recovered, but it’s an incident that scarred Kim, and one that he could not forgive himself for. As an act of self-administered therapy, Kim closed his doors to the world for three years, with only a cat and a secluded log cabin for company.
Arirang is a Korean folk song, and according to some sources it’s Korea’s unofficial national anthem. It tells of parting and sorrow, providing a potent metaphor for Korea’s suffering at the end of the Korean War. Kim bellows it out at regular intervals, and on the evidence of his painful crooning, K-Pop wont be his next artistic endeavour. Which is just as well, because Kim Ki-duk has a large fan base around the world (he does mention it every now and then), after impressing audiences and critics alike with The Isle, Bad Guy and 3-Iron. He openly admits that the love of his movies is not universal – he’s a lot like marmite to me – but few would deny his filmmaking prowess.
The documentary cuts between question and answer sessions between Kim and himself, and footage of the Samaritan Girl director rediscovering himself away from the harsh light of day. We watch as he chops wood, starts fires, cooks meals and – rather impressively – puts together his own espresso machine. Kim spends a lot of time looking into the distance, reflecting (presumably) on life as the cat wanders around outside. Thinking about it, the cat probably wonders what it did to deserve such luck. He spends even more time getting drunk (Kim that is), and after ten minutes of voyeurism, you will start to wonder how the winner of the Leone d’Argento Award at the 61st Venice Film Festival arrived at such a low point in life. It doesn’t take long for us to find out.
Kim reveals the true extent of his troubles after a few drinks, criticising himself and the people that betrayed him along the way. The documentary is edited to give the illusion that he’s having a conversation with himself, and as the film progresses, we’re even treated to the sight of Kim looking on – in bemused fashion – as he watches himself having a conversation with himself on the monitor. A three-way conversation from just the one perspective – there are times when Arirang borders on self-indulgence. He tells of his confusion and self-doubt after the accident on set. He talks of his inability to make sense of the world, the new film he can’t bring himself to make, and his desire to move on with his life. At times he’s calm and collected, but at other times he’s extremely volatile. Kim flies into a rage on several occasions (at the expense of a clear head it has to be said), shouting, screaming and threatening the camera lens.
Kim Ki-duk enthusiasts might take some pleasure from this warts and all soul explosion, but Arirang is unlikely to find an audience in the rest of the world. It’s rarely easy viewing, and at times you’ll fear for the cat, especially when he launches into that folk song for the third time. Kim comes across as bitter and resentful in places, so there’s even a chance his fans will find the going tough. I hope making this documentary has answered the questions he hoped it would, and I look forward to seeing what he does next, but there’s very little evidence of personal progression recorded here. He starts out angry and confused and that’s pretty much where we leave him. The final act lurches into fantasy, and whether or not he had a point to make remains unclear - Arirang’s message is no more ‘found’ than the films protagonist. On reflection though, perhaps that was his one and only point. Kim’s a talented man and his films speak for themselves, so I wont be the only person who has no interest in watching him whine to the world for 90 minutes. Especially somebody who - as he points out on more than one occasion - has an avid fan base and a respectable career going on.
Now that it’s out of the way, Kim can return to doing what he does best. Arirang will play well to those most loyal to him, but anyone outside the loop will find it hard to bear. The tortured sole routine works well up to a point, but self-indulgence will have you wondering how much rings true.