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Kim Ki-duk/South Korea-Japan 2006

The films of Kim Ki-duk routinely convey the power and potency of visual metaphor in the expression of cinematic ideas. The director pays particular attention to photographing his settings in a way that imbues them with added significance and a level of meaning that directly comments on the lives of his subjects. In the highly acclaimed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, for example, he emphasized the sight of a floating temple surrounded by water and dwarfed by tree covered mountains, to illuminate the loneliness and challenges of monastic life.

Although Time – his newest film to reach these shores – relies more on dialogue and soap operatic situations than one would like, it displays the director’s characteristic belief in the primacy of the image which makes his work such a pleasure to behold. Here the favored setting is a sculpture park, filled with reclining bronzed figures, a hollow, overgrown seashell and, most extraordinarily, a staircase weaved through the fingers of two giant hands, stretching to the sky. For Kim the locale underwrites the movie’s central, existential theme, which explores the most basic difference between humanity and the sculpted creations: Our inability to escape from our memories of the past and the consequences of it.

The main trope supplementing the narrative takes the form of another way to mold a figure: plastic surgery. When See-hee (Park Ji-yeon) observes her boyfriend Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) noticing other women and appearing disinterested during sex, she recklessly decides on total facial reconstruction as the only way to continue attracting him. Despite warnings from her surgeon and the fact that her new face will require six months to heal, she disappears without notice and undergoes the surgery, breaking off all contact with Ji-woo. Bewildered and alone, he attempts to get on with his life, but he’s stricken by the sense of See-hee lingering in the shadows, punishing him with her memory.

Though the movie opens with grotesque, jarring footage of a facial reconstruction, and certainly makes an argument against plastic surgery, Kim is not one to be weighed down by such superficial concerns. His film feels like a ghost story, but rather than the usual sort of demon, the ghoul in question takes the shape of Ji-woo’s uncomfortably submerged, unresolved pain over See-hee’s sudden disappearance, and the invasive role it plays in his daily life. The director lends further texture to that idea when See-hee reemerges, unrecognizable (as she desired) but still fundamentally the same person underneath. Ji-woo cannot move on and she cannot easily evade the sum of her prior experiences. They may change their appearances and what they outwardly project but, unlike their beloved statues, which can be modified and rebuilt consequence free, they are sentient beings, each with a soul.

It is the filmmaker’s dreamlike evocation of these weighty, philosophical ideas that makes Time work. Some of the dramatic stuff comes off as pretty uneven, and the main characters display a grating, shared propensity for public screaming fits. But the concerns fall to the wayside when ensconced within Ki-duk’s majestically serene vision, with its beautifully formed master shots that illuminate the quiet and contemplative qualities in the most modern of settings. As the characters sit on the aforementioned two-handed figure, surrounded by water, with its staircase seemingly on an infinite continuum to the heavens, the director achieves nothing short of meditative rapture.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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  1. New York Korean Film Festival 2007 « FINAL GIRL POP CHAT

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