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Korean director' Kim Ki-duk'

Kim Ki-duk

compiled by Darcy Paquet

More than any other Korean director, the films and reputation of Kim Ki-duk have been characterized by a sense of disconnect. Kim himself disavows any commonalities with other Korean filmmakers of his generation such as Hong Sang-soo or Lee Chang-dong, due to his lower-class upbringing and lack of formal training in film. In terms of subject matter, Kim has focused on marginalized and disenfranchised characters who operate outside the main currents of middle and upper-class Korean society. Kim is also a rare case of a director who has won accolades and found box-office success overseas but -- with a few exceptions -- has largely failed to connect with Korean critics or audiences. In terms of his influences, his aesthetics, the stories he tells, and his local and international reception, Kim Ki-duk seems to inhabit a world all his own.

Kim was born in 1960 in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang Provice (south of Gangwon Province). His family moved to Seoul when he was nine, and there he attended agricultural training school before dropping out at age 17 to take up work in factories. From age 20 to 25 he served in the marines, where he is said to have fit in well. Afterwards he spent two years at a church for the visually impaired with the thought of becoming a preacher. Then in 1990, scraping up all the money he had to buy a plane ticket, he traveled to Paris where he spent two years selling his paintings (a lifelong hobby) on the street. Kim says he went to the movie theater for the first time in his life at this time, and remembers being especially impressed with Silence of the Lambs and Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.

After returning to Korea he took up his newfound interest in cinema by writing scripts for local screenplay contests. In 1993 he won the top award from the Educational Institute of Screenwriting for A Painter and a Criminal Condemned to Death. This was followed up in 1994 by a third place award in the KOFIC (Korean Film Council, then the Korea Motion Picture Promotion Corporation) Screenplay Competition for Double Exposure, and a first place award in the same competition in 1995 for Jaywalking.

In 1996 Kim made his debut Crocodile with production company Joyoung Films. The film tells the story of a man living at the edge of the Han River in Seoul, who saves a woman trying to commit suicide. He then proceeds to rape and abuse her until an odd relationship develops between them. A keen promoter of his work from the very beginning, Kim says he contacted journalists directly to encourage them to come to the film's press screening, but little of them showed interest. He got a more receptive response from the Pusan International Film Festival, who screened Crocodile and almost all of his subsequent features in the Korea Panorama section, helping to launch his international career. (In 2002, Kim's The Coast Guard would screen as the festival's opening film.)

From this point on Kim would shoot 1-2 low-budget films per year, developing a reputation for shooting quickly and efficiently on location. In 1998 his third film Birdcage Inn screened at Karlovy Vary, then he received his breakthrough when The Isle -- produced by local powerhouse Myung Films -- was selected to screen in competition at the 2000 Venice International Film Festival. The film lived up to its billing as a controversial shocker when an Italian journalist passed out during a press screening, during a particularly gruesome scene involving fish hooks. Although the film was not awarded by the main jury, it firmly established Kim's reputation in Europe.

However most local critics were unimpressed, with feminist critics in particular calling him a "monster", a "psycho", or a "useless filmmaker." This ignited an ongoing feud between the director and his critics, culminating in Kim's announcement that he would no longer give interviews with the local press (a promise that was soon broken).

The next couple years saw more high-profile festival invitations (Address Unknown to Venice and Bad Guy to Berlin, though Cannes showed less interest in the filmmaker), and Kim's first local box-office hit with Bad Guy. The film's commercial success was chalked up to the sudden popularity of lead actor Jo Jae-hyun after starring in a hit TV drama, but a high-profile, seductive marketing campaign by local major CJ Entertainment also contributed. Kim's next work The Coast Guard featured top local star Jang Dong-gun (the only star casting of Kim's career), but it ultimately performed under expectations.

A major shift occurred in Kim's career with his ninth, Buddhist-themed film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. Although he continued to focus on marginalized elements of society, his work took on a more consciously spiritual aspect, downplaying violence and foregrounding themes of redemption and foregiveness. Kim's softer style played well with foreign audiences -- Spring, Summer... and 3-Iron were strong successes in Europe and North America -- and with festival juries. In 2004, Kim won Best Director awards from Berlin for Samaritan Girl and from Venice for 3-Iron. (Each film, incidentally, was shot in a space of about two weeks)

Kim has undisputed strengths as a filmmaker, primarily his knack for evocative imagery and his ability to propel his narratives forward with virtually no dialogue (both of which help make his works more accessible to foreign viewers). As a self-taught director his films -- particularly those of his early career -- display certain rough edges. And to date he remains a source of controversy. Although in recent years many Korean reviewers have warmed to his films, critical opinion is far from unanimous. His portrayal of female characters in particular remains a bone of contention. Although he will never win over all his detractors, Kim has by now established himself as one of Korea's most famous and distinctive directors.

Note: Kim Ki-duk has the same name as another filmmaker who directed over 50 features in the 1960s and 1970s, including such classics as Five Marines (1961), Barefooted Youth (1964), South and North (1965), and Grand Evil Master Yonggary (1967). They are not related.


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