Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: Arirang

Navel-gazing: with Ki-duk Kim

Image courtesy of Terracotta Distribution
 In 2008 prolific Korean director Ki-duk Kim - best known in the West for 3-Iron, The Isle and Spring Summer Autumn Winter... And Spring - was shooting his film Dream. In the movie, one of the characters attempts suicide. However, while filming, the 'noose' rig they had built went wrong and the actress lost consciousness. The quick actions of Kim saved the day, but the incident had a massive effect on the director, and he retreated in self-imposed exile to an isolated mountain cabin for three years. Trying to deal with the mental repurcussions of the incident, Kim struggled to regain the confidence to make another film, despite his deep-seeded love for the medium. A failed project with Willem Dafoe helped matters little. Eventually, Ki-duk decided on an unusual solution: to turn the camera on himself, and try to tease out why exactly he stopped making films in 2008.

It's not an easy task to review Arirang for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, you really are unlikely to have seen anything quite like it. It's theoretically a documentary, but there are enough subversions and eccentricities to blur that simplistic distinction. Huge amounts of the film are simply Kim's monologues to camera... actually that's not entirely accurate either. At various junctures, Kim edits himself interviewing himself as an almost dual personality, while another lengthy sequence has the 'real' (a further blurry distinction) Kim engage in discourse with his own shadow. So the monologues in the film are actually dialogues, or are they? Other scenes have Kim haunted by an invisible figure knocking on the door in the film's one real admittance of metaphorical fiction. Suffice to say, a run-of-the-mill documentary this is not, and the mere form of Arirang is wholly nontraditional.

So what is it then? A self-portrait, perhaps. Indeed, this may be one of the most intensely navel-gazing films ever made. We can only assume Ki-duk Kim is being brutally honest here, and the results drift between mesmirising, upsetting and - at times - sort of uncomfortable. One sequence has Kim rewatching Spring Summer... and breaking down in tears in the process. It's a heartbreaking moment, and a summation of Kim's struggles and the film's thematic arc. On the other hand, there are times the unflinching honesty becomes slightly exhausting. Ki-duk blasts into off-key renditions of 'Arirang' - the folk song that lends the film its title - several times, with increasingly discomforting results.

As said, critiquing Arirang in traditional terms is a difficult ask. You are essentially watching a one-man show. Many will find considerable stretches of the film tedious, perhaps even those who ultimately emerge admiring it. Others will take umbrage with Kim's constant reminders of his international successes (curiously, his relative lack of success and acclaim in Korea itself is only infrequently and ambiguously commented upon). It could be interpreted as a straight-up rant at time. Some may even argue its little more than a selfish exercise in narcissism, unworthy of wide release. Perhaps inarguable is that for a film shot on a Canon 5D and seemingly edited in a tent within a cabin, its inevitable roughness actually looks pretty decent (low light conditions notwithstanding), especially a handful of relatively pointless yet pretty pre-composed landscape and 'action' shots.

Arirang isn't a film I 'liked' in the traditional sense, although despite some of the film's very rough edges I'm fairly sure it was worth the effort. Because what Arirang does is create a powerful, complex portrait of a troubled soul who undeniably finds great solace in the cinematic form. The film almost acts as a coming-of-age ritual, as we're invited to rediscover his film-making passion along with him. It's most certainly a strange, challenging and undefinable film. But Arirang was clearly a therapeutic exercise first and foremost. The film appropriately ends with a montage of photographs of Ki-duk Kim the prolific director. And it's not surprising that, Arirang released into the wild, that same director returned to fiction within a short period of time (with his two latest films Amen and Poongsan hopefully due a Western release in the near future).

Arirang is Ki-duk Kim externalising and filming his deep-rooted internal struggles. I can't guarantee you'll find said navel-gazing worthy of a public airing, but for those who come along for the ride there may will be insight hidden amidst the fluff.

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