Saturday, December 17, 2005

Kim Ki-Duk's Bad Guy

Kim Ki-Duk has become one of my favorite directors recently, all of his films I've seen have been good, but it's with 3 Iron and Samaritan Girl that I've seen how great his stuff can be. Those are also two of his most recent films. Bad Guy is an earlier work, from 2001 (though it was just released here this year). It's not as emotionally potent as 3 Iron or Samaritan Girl, but it's still extremely powerful and clearly lays the roots for a lot of his later work, dealing with one of his favorite themes, prostitution.

One of the best things about Kim Ki-Duk's work is the way the films take you on a really sustained emotional journey. The journey that Sun-Hwa is similar to what the main character of Samaritan Girl goes through, but here it's even darker. By the end of the film, she's a completely different person than she was at the beginning, but unlike most movies, her arc isn't something moved forward by her own action, it's more that she's manipulated into a bad situation and just drifts along facing the ever increasing misdeeds done unto her, until at the end the person she was is basically dead.

I love the opening scenes, the casual disdain that Sun-Hwa has for Han-Ki. He clearly sees in her the woman he lost, but she sees only a brute, and his previous emotional trauma, as well as a desire to confront her disdain for him, is what prompts him to kiss her, an action that ultimately leads to a really degrading experience for Han-Ki.

Looking back, seeing Sun-Hwa is clearly emotionally traumatic for Han-Ki. At first you assume it's just the fact that she's a beautiful woman that would attract him, however, it was clearly about trying to recapture what he lost with the woman he once knew. So, being so utterly rejected, he decides to seek revenge. He manipulates the events with the wallet to get her to take it and put her into debt.

It's interesting that his plan for enslaving her relies on her own inherent darkness. Seeing her rip the page out of the book, he knows that she will take the wallet. Though she refuses her own boyfriend's advances, there's clearly a dark streak in her. I think she's caught between her own desire to act in the darkness and society's morals which tell her that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. I'm not saying that at the end of the film she gets what she deserves or wants, rather that in every person lurks a darkness, and Han-Ki preys on it to get what he wants.

Judging from this and Samaritan Girl, prositution in Korea is much more accepted than it is here. I'm not sure about the legality, but clearly it's not as outrageous as it would be here for a girl to go into prostitution. Still, for a college student, it's not the expected path. Watching Sun-Hwa gradually acclimate herself to the prositute life puts the viewer in an uneasy position. The way we've grown accustomed to narrative, she would somehow take the bad fate she's been given and turn it to her advantage, like rally the girls to change things, or fight to get out of the life.

When you first see Sun-Hwa looking so sad on display in the window, you feel bad for her, and the scene where she has her first client is almost painfullly awkward. I found myself wishing that she would just embrace the life she's been forced into, to try to please the clients and play the game like the other girls. Yet, when she finally does, it basically marks the death of the person she was. The critical turning point of the film is when she starts to actively solicit business and is told by a client that she really seemed to like it. In choosing to embrace this life, she has given up any chance of returning to what she was, and that's incredibly sad. The film, though the ending has a feeling of catharsis, is ultimately the story of someone who loses the chance to live a normal life because of the cruel actions of another person. It's an incredibly sad story when you step back and look at it.

Concurrently with all this, we've got the story of Han-Ki. I didn't find his stuff as interesting as Sun-Hwa, largely because a lot of stuff is unclear. Maybe I just missed it, but the whole thing with Dal-Su came out of nowhere. And also, he received so many life threatening injuries, it was a bit ridiculous how he kept coming back. Normally I try to just roll with what the movie is doing, but in this case, it got a bit too much by the fourth life threatening injury. Kim's films create such insular worlds that little things like that can really break the spell of the film.

However, his basic conflict is phenomenal. This is a guy who's clearly once been in love, but buried that and embraced his life as a low rent gangster pimp. He seeks revenge on Sun-hwa because she refuses to see him as a human being. Clearly, he's got some self loathing issues, most notably when he beats his friend. This could be seen as both an extension of his love for Sun-hwa, he doesn't want her sullied by this guy, as well as a desire to punish himself. With his other friend in prison, beating this guy leaves him free to move on.

The scees where Han-ki watches Sun-hwa through the two way mirror are absolutely phenomenal. The black void lighting, only broken by the embers of a burning cigarette, his face reflected in the mirror, watching Sun-Hwa's gradual degredation. I love the way Kim's frame create multiple planes of action. You can watch Han-Ki's face and the action with Sun-hwa simultaneously, in the same way that a number of scenes with Han and his crew are set so that we can see Sun and her crew soliciting customers in the background, two stories happening at once.

Over the course of the film, it's unclear how Sun feels about Sun. Clearly, he has some affection for her, and likely a lot of guilt about what he did to her. Yet, at the same time he sits watching her have sex with other men with little attempt to stop her or protect her. The one night they do spend together is chaste, with her on the floor next to him. There's the beautiful moment where he fixes her hook. It seems that he has little actual sexual desire himself, certainly not since the woman he loved killed herself.

The scene with Han and Sun on the beach is my favorite in the film. I'm assuming there's some sort of memory/dream crossing with reality, since we see the woman going into the water, yet Han makes no attempt to stop her, indicating this is something that's already happened. The music in that scene is phenomenal. Kim uses music sparingly, but he'll frequently use a song multiple times, lending it greater meaning within the context of the story, and his music choice is always impeccable. The scene here when Sun reaches for the glass is stunning because such a small action has so much significance. Sun is finally going to engage violence, seek revenge against the person who broke her, yet she is unable to go through with it. She finds herself held captive still.

The scene leads us to believe that we'll finally get the emotional payoff we've been waiting for all film, but it's quickly undermined and rather than any sort of resolution, Sun just gets carried along on her path. That's the way the whole film goes, there's no specific turning points, just a bunch of choices that eventually lead to Sun's change. It's a stunning physical transformation, the fresh faced girl from the beginning of the movie is completely worn down, with bags under her eyes, hidden only by garish makeup at the end.

That transformation is just one of the stunning visual elements. Kim moves the camera sparingly, choosing instead to create reallly strong still frames. As mentioned before, the stuff with the mirror is fantastic, as is the whole visual design of the street. I love the way the windows are constructed in such a way as to fully commodify the girls, they're on display to be leered at and bought by customers, who view them not as people but as commodities. The contrast between the showy neon streets and the drab bedroom is also effective. You never see the two environments interact, it's like the glamourous outfits and appearances of the outside are rendered moot when it comes time to do the act itself. I love how garish the wigs and color coordinated clothes she puts on are, the implication being that each night she dresses up as something else, designed solely to appeal men, and with each disguise she further loses touch with who she was to begin with.

The other strong visual motif was the pictures. They were used brilliantly when we see her face in one empty picture and a client's in the other. I also like the way it initially seems to be just a visual metaphor but then pays off in the end, giving us some information that completely changes the narrative. And finally, another standout scene is when Sun-Hwa breaks through the mirror to discover Han-Ki, very powerful visually.

The ending of the film is troubling. As I mentioned before, the stuff with the gang and the prison is a bit weak and distracts from the core relationship at the center of the film. Also, this is definitely a film with a few false endings, moments where you think it's over but comes back.

The difficult thing about the film is that the final message seems to be that Sun-Hwa has been irreprably damaged, and as a result, she must continue to be a prostitute. When she goes to the prison and yells at Han-Ki, it's not just the fact that he initially put her in this situation, and caused her a lot of pain, it's that he killed the person she was. This is the last moment of real emotional engagement we see, after this she essentially gives up and consigns herself to a life of prostitution.

When she's out on her own, she ends up having sex with the truck driver, and as a result, she's drawn back to Han-Ki. At first, I thought that they were going to have a relationship, run away from it all and be together, but we don't even get that. Instead, he sets her up as a travelling prostitute, working seaside communities, and though they are together, they're both still completely alone, Sun-Hwa is left to only imagine the life she could have had.

The film is very powerful, confronting the audience with dark events that refuse to give you easily resolution. You want Sun-Hwa to do something, to come alive, but she can't, she's been beaten by the life she's leading, and she can never be the person she used to be again. Han-Ki at first sees in her an innocence and longing for something better, but ultimately ends up bringing her down to his level instead of elevating her. Kim's stuff is always tough, but this may be the darkest yet. In The Isle, at least the two of them were together, and at the end of Samaritan Girl, she may have been through prostitution, but she was ultimately cleansed. This is no such salvation for Sun-Hwa.

The film contains all of Kim's favorite elements: prostitution, prison, water and graphic violence as emotional punctuation. I think he's one of the world's best filmmakers because, like David Lynch, his films aren't easy, there are enigmas, both narrative and moral to deal with and you leave his films needing to discuss and analyze them. They spur more thought rather than leaving everything cleanly tied up. That's why it's frequently in the analysis of the film that the depths are discovered, it's the second and third viewings where you can really enjoy the movie. And Kim is also a stunning visual composer. His frames are composed to tell a story, using visuals rather than words to convey narrative, the wordless emotional connections between people far more important than the vagaries of speech.

8 comments:

Bob said...

I agree with you. "Bad Guy" is an amazing film that portrays a story with much depth and empathy for the 'riff-raff' of society. Duk forces the viewer to reconsider the questions of life through the lens of these very complex characters and the lives fate has left them to lead.

Did you get the picture element? I was wondering if the two knew each other PRIOR to their meeting on the benches at the beginning of the film. Is SUN-Wa simply rejecting Han gi?

Ramesh said...

Yes, The film is really great. It was indeed a visual experience to mee too. But I do not understand why he took the story line like that at the end. Why the director sent her back to prostitution? Why the Han-Ki behaved like that?
Can you tell your view on it?
Ramesh, India

satyaki said...

People are very much confused about bad guys ending,,,the first time when i saw the movie---i was also pretty confused myself.. Why the hell did the director do that?---was my first thought. Later as i read a few articles and talked with a few film critics i deciphered the ending. Kim tried to show that love transcends all physical aspects. Physical proximity is not love..its an emotional bonding. Thus though when our protagonist goes back to prostitution its not a forced thing,,,its much more of a personal choice..And they accept each other irrespective of that fact that she is a sex worker..thats the strong point of the climax.

Sildenafil Citrate said...

Kim Ki-Duk is actually a great director. He has been doing such an amazing work lately. I can't wait to see what's next.

jake fisher said...

I agree with you about Kim Ki Duk, but no Prostitution is not more accepted in South Korea. Rather it is more obvious where it is. I'd love to see a comparison of this film with "Hustle and Flow", I think what you would find is that South Koreans generally see prostitution as something people are forced into as a result of poverty, whereas in the US it is more considered a moral failing. Or something people are doing just to get ahead, and make it.

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Anonymous said...

I had to search thoughts of other people about this film to understand it. I know that this is not one of those films you can watch on TV, and not one of those having a happy ending plus I really love korean films, they are genious, but I do hate the ending of this one. I was so sad Sun had chosen a life like this. I think she loves the Bad Guy much more than he loves her... The picture element was not clear for me. Maybe this indicates that this is some kind of vicious circle she's in, from which she can't simply "come on out"...

Anonymous said...

Whoever wrote this article completely misinterpreted the ending. Both Han Gi and Sun Hwa end up dying in the end. Han Gi dies when his friend stabs him after they fight and Sun Hwa commits suicide by walking into the ocean.
If you remember when they go to the beach for the first time they see a woman in a red dress walk into the sea. That is actually not happening since Sun Hwa is the only one who notices her. She is basically seeing herself in the future...what she will end up doing.
Secondly the pictures she finds are real, BUT the faces of the pictures she finds in the end are not real. She sees herself and Han Gi in the picture as a representation of their own relationship. Both of them are in love with each other, but they are doomed and can never be together just like the couple in the picture.

So in conclusion...both Han Gi and Sun Hwa die in the end and they don't realize that they are dead and end up living in some afterlife. They both go get the clothes they see the couple wear in the pictures and meet each other at the beach and end up being pimp and prostitute just like they were when they were alive. That is the only way both feel comfortable being with each other and that is their sign of love. If you guys have seen 3 Iron the lead guy dies in that movie as well and stays in the world with his lover who keeps seeing him but no one else can.