Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kim Ki-Duk's Time

Kim Ki-Duk is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, creating movies that all inhabit a universe of their own, a universe he's been building over ten years of filmmaking. Typically, his films feature a minimum of dialogue, and center around prostitutes and/or water. Time represents a departure from some of these trademark themes, the characters talk quite a bit and though there is some water, there's no prostitutes. Time is a more conventional film than his previous works, taking on aspects of conventional thrillers rather than the discomforting bizarreness of his other works. I think that makes it an easier film to watch, but one that is less consistent in achieving the odd magic only he is capable of.

For me, the film's opening chunk is the most problematic. Kim Ki-Duk is frequently accused of making misogynistic films, a criticism that I would generally consider widely off base. The exploration of women in 3-Iron or Samaritan Girl is nuanced and emotionally true. Yes, he puts his female characters through some awful ordeals, but so did Douglas Sirk, and he's hailed as one of the finest directors of female characters. In 3-Iron or Samaritan Girl, we're made to understand why the women are suffering, and we experience the moments of violence that they undergo right with them.

What makes this opening troubling is that Seh-Hee's motivation is completely irrational. She winds up seeming shrill and unsympathetic. Watching this through, I was troubled by the lack of shading in her character. We are meant to consider this behavior ridiculous, and the end of the film demonstrates that Seh-Hee is now aware of how ridiculous what she did was. However, that growth doesn't excuse her irrationality in that moment. Considering the whole film hinges on this, I think it would have been possible to treat her jealousy in a more rational way.

Like a lot of Kim-Ki Duk films, this has a dual perspective structure. We follow Ji-Woo for the first half of the film, his struggle to deal with Seh-Hee's sudden disappearance. The film is designed to show that the love Seh-Hee and Ji-Woo had was great, giving them both exactly what they needed. In the moments where they're together, there is happiness. Outside, they are unable to find that same connection with anyone else, and yet, through their fear of losing each other, they wind up destroying their relationship.

Ji-Woo's journey into the dating world reinforces the superficiality he feels trying to be with anyone but Seh-Hee. His love for her creates a deep guilt about seeing anyone else, and his attempts to actually be with anyone only spiral into worse and worse situations. I'm not sure if the broken glass in the hotel is actually caused by Seh-Hee, that doesn't matter so much. In Kim's films, character psychology is reflected in the conditions of the physical world, so his guilt about being with someone other than Seh-Hee is made physical through the breaking glass. Something similar happens later when Seh-Hee goes to the man's apartment and find a whole bunch of evidence to lead her to belive it's Ji-Woo, the world reflects her desires.

By this point, Seh-Hee has given herself quite a conundrum, she is competing with herself for Ji-Woo's affections. She has a wonderful time with him at the sculpture park, but he remains tied to Seh-Hee. I'm not sure what she wants him to say when she asks what he'd do if Seh-Hee came back? Does she want him to say she's over the old her, fully in love with the new one, or would that in fact validate the very fears that motivated her to get plastic surgery in the first place? Basically, neither answer is good and there's no way for her to be happy, because telling the truth would make Ji-Woo think she's insane.

And that's what happens in the fabulously bizarre scene where Seh-Hee goes to see him with the mask on. That mask was very freaky, the sort of lo-fi, but deeply disturbing scare that Lynch put to great use in Inland Empire. This film is the turning point of the film, where our perspective switches from Ji-Woo's to Seh-Hee's. The parallel structure is nice, with Seh-Hee now forced to experience the same frustration and uncertainty that Ji-Woo did in the film's first half. I'm not sure why he chose to get surgery, I suppose it's primarily to punish her for what she did. At this point, Ji-Woo disappears from the story and we experience Seh-Hee's pain. Here, Seh-Hee sees the folly of her plan, she condemned Ji-Woo for looking at some women, but now she looks at every man, thinking that they could be the one she loves.

Visually, the film is less expressive than Kim's best work, his films about mute characters require incredible visuals to tell the story, here dialogue does more of the work. That said, there are still some great moments. I love Seh-Hee sitting on the hand, just above water, as well as when she lies down next to the statue.

The whole story leads up to a horrific act of violence. In Kim's films, violence is frequently the only means through which characters can express their emotions. Here, the death of someone who might be Ji-Woo indicates to Seh-Hee the full folly of what she did. She so despises herself, she again seeks to escape into the anonymity of a new identity.

This leads us back to the film's beginning, in a seemingly illogical narrative loop. How could Seh-Hee bump into herself from the future? I would aruge this, like many Kim conclusions, makes sense from a psychological perspective, not a literal one. Earlier, when Seh-Hee sits down at a man's table, she seems to initiate a similar loop as the one that led to her own plastic surgery. So, jealousy becomes a vicious cycle, perpetuating itself ad infinitum. She bumps into her future self, setting up the idea of plastic surgery in the first place.

Ultimately, the film is saying that plastic surgery doesn't change anything. Because the same person is underneath, we'll still be trapped in the same behavioral loops. The ending makes this literal, she can change her appearance, completely dissolve her identity, but she can't change the person inside.

I think there's parts of this film that are very effective, but as I said before, it doesn't match up with the best of Kim Ki-Duk's work, which taps into a raw emotional power that's very rare in cinema. But, he can only make the same movie so many times, so it's good to see him moving beyond his trademark obsessions and expanding his narrative universe.


Ivy Tayag Baldoza said...

I saw Time just recently and I agree with what you said about the ending and I felt it that it was possibly the filmmaker's conclusion, that she gets to bump into her future/past self creating this loop. My friend thinks otherwise that what she saw was Ji-Woo in his new form, her face. Well then again the whole film had a lot of surealist, off-tangent key points. I like his other films Spring, Summer... and The Isle better than this one. But visually I love the scupltures in this film.

Richard, Houston Texas said...

I watched this movie on April 27, 2009 and I enjoyed this movie except for the ending. Through 3/4's of the movie I was giving it a "10", but once Ji-Woo never made his new appearance it started going down hill a little for me, like a grade of "8". When she bumped into herself, like many, I was confused. I almost grabbed a pen and paper to jot down notes from my memory to solve this puzzle. I asked, "how can one bump into one's-self?" I first had to prove that it was the same person. I concluded that it was her, her future and current self, or you can say past. So using realism, this is pretty impossible, so I then concluded that the director was being artistic. He wanted to express himself. This messed the movie up for me, for most of the movie really wasn't artistic besides the statues. I tried hard to search for a deeper meaning for that "bump", and I'm a very artistic person myself being a writer of poetry.

Wow, it just hit me! This is my conclusion, my opinion. The movie was artistic from the start. She bumped into herself to symbolize a message from her future to herself. The picture shattered when it hit the ground (symbolic of her relationship falling to pieces and she is to blame "bumping into herself"). She shows the picture to Ji-Woo and he pretty much states that the lady in the picture looks weird and he wouldn't be interested in her. This was a warning not to do the surgery. Also note that she leaves the picture on the table and they leave together. She had promised to repair the picture and return it. She didn't. She was too caught up into her own self that she became broken and showed no true concern for others, including Ji-Woo. She focused too much upon her own-self. This is just my opinion. Now I feel better about things. I really feel the director left it up to us to conclude the ending from our own points of view.

Pranav Ashar said...

Hi richard,

i really like your take on the film... all the best

frantic said...

dear friends, I read all your comments and i honestly acknowledge them all. but what i feel is that rather than trying for an eerie conclusion we should try enjoying the surreal-ambiguity of that ending, for that I hope is the beauty of the art.

Yoshi B said...

I 've watched the movie twice. My favorite Korean movie thus far. Not the best, but I just like it, the acting and what not. I agree that the ending was confusing, and in my opinion trivialized the movie itself. I've recently visited the 'hands' sculpture in Seoul, due to this movie. You can walk on the 'hand' sculpture like they did in the movie. Pretty cool.

Al Beato said...

This is the third movie of Kim Ki-duk that I have watched. First was The Isle then Pieta (a pretty great film) then this. All I can say is the movie really made me confused towards the ending, although I liked this movie. But thanks to previous comments (Richard's is the best!), I understand it now. Just to share my remaining confusion about the film, wasn't the man at the end named Jung-Woo really Ji-Woo? Why won't he be Ji-Woo? He must have just made up the name "Jung-Woo" like Seh-Hee made up "See-Hee". HAHA anyway that was my last question about the movie.

Anonymous said...

thnxs for the post bcz i didnt understand the ending

Graeme, Australia said...

Thanks Richard! I realise it's many years after you posted this comment and you'll probably never see it, but I was frustrated with the ending and how so many people writing about it just completely ignored it and focused on the accident. What you have said really resonates for me and brings the whole picture together. It then almost becomes a 12 monkeys kind of thing!

Anonymous said...

Nice points of your views