Award-winning filmmaker Kim Ki-duk urges American audiences to see the evil in us all.
story by STEVE HAN
photograph by INKI CHO
JUST A FEW MINUTES into my interview with Kim Ki-duk, it’s clear this conversation with South Korea’s revolutionary filmmaker is going to get deeply philosophical.
“Competition is an inevitable element of human life,” Kim says at one point. “But it becomes dangerous when we compete solely for money and power. We can’t continue to have competitions where losing mires you in a sense of inferiority. The purposes of competing have to be based on positive will. I want us to compete for the purposes of living in a horizontal society.”
Though he is recognized in the international film world as a critically acclaimed—and sometimes controversial—director, Kim is also well known in Korea for coining the term supyeongsahwae, which means “horizontal society.” Such a society, according to Kim, is a world where everyone strives for understanding, rather than judging. Promoting the horizontal society is also the ultimate motto of his films, including his latest, Pieta, which became the first Korean film to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Kim was in Los Angeles last month for the American Film Institute’s festival, where the award-winning movie was being screened. Barbaric and bloody, the story of Pieta centers on a ruthless debt collector, Lee Kang-do (played by Lee Jung-jin), who employs violence reaching dehumanizing levels to collect his dues. The story then takes a strange turn when Kang-do encounters a debtor who claims to be his mother.
“In my films, there’s neither a good guy nor an evil guy,” explains Kim in Korean, his scraggly gray hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, during an interview at the historic Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. “You see [in Kang-do] a man who’s a murderer, but from a sympathetic perspective. What Pieta does is that it highlights our social structure, which fails to protect certain people from darkness. I want my American audience to take a break from identifying who’s good or evil in a film, and try to relate to [Kang-do] on a human level.”
Kim believes that many mainstream American films offer an overly simplistic view of life and the human condition.
“American moviegoers generally seek stereotypical humanistic elements,” he says. “Filmmakers here draw a fine line between the good and the evil by making the protagonist a good guy and the antagonist an evil guy. The end product of it is the fabricated societal message that good and evil are mutually exclusive and that good people will beat ones that happen to be evil.”
He finds this kind of approach dangerously deceitful. “By separating good and evil, filmmakers unconsciously imply that a human being is either innately good, or innately evil, that we’re born to be one or the other,” he says. By contrast, Kim says he portrays good and evil as coexisting elements in human life.
His insistence on depicting the complex and sometimes cruel truth of life, no doubt, is informed by his own personal story. Born in 1960 to a struggling family in North Gyeongsang Province, Kim dropped out of school at age 12 due to his family’s difficult financial situation. Though he long had an interest in the arts, he would take jobs at various electronic factories to make ends meet. He later worked with disabled persons as a missionary in Seoul while attending seminary. It was at the underfunded and poorly managed facilities for the disabled where his social consciousness was awakened.
“We see people who are flawed mentally and physically,” Kim explains. “What we need is to do then is to look at the environment they’re in. When you do that, you see that they were victimized by social flaws of basic elements in life, like education and money. So in a grander scheme, supporting the death penalty with a vision to eliminate murderers in society is identifying a symptom, but not a cause.”
In 1990, while visiting Europe with the intention of studying contemporary arts and linguistics, he saw The Silence of the Lambs and The Lovers on the Bridge, and the experience aroused his passion for filmmaking. He debuted his first feature film, Crocodile, in 1996, and though low-budget, Korean critics praised the work. Kim’s arthouse films would be favorites at international film festivals, with Samaritan Girl winning best director honors at the Berlin International Film Festival and his 3-Iron also winning the equivalent prize at the Venice Film Festival, both in 2004. The judges at Cannes Film Festival would also name his 2011 self-documentary film Arirang best film in the Un Certain Regard category.
“My films point to social issues with universality to it,” Kim says. “It’s about problems centering on money. Money at its core is a God-given tool for the purposes of exchanging goods, but it’s now become a symbol of power. This is the problem I’d like to highlight through my films.”
Not everyone is a fan of Kim’s movies. Some critics are repulsed by his presentation of extreme violence, but the filmmaker is adamant that the underlying theme of his work promotes a larger cause for the good of society.
“In order to know how bright the color white is, you also need to know how dark the color black is. To see the structural flaws of our society, you need to understand just why you feel discomfort when you encounter violence,” he says. “To avoid coming to that understanding is a flawed form of self-defense from the possibility that anyone can be evil as well.”
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)