The Reeler


July 12, 2007


Korean director Kim Ki-duk's latest puts the crazy back in crazy love

If you went into Time blind -- familiar with director Kim Ki-duk’s style but without the benefit of a title card -- you might have trouble naming the auteur right away. Instead of Kim’s usual sullen, mute male in oversized clothes, there is Ji-woo (Jung-woo Ha), a cute, deferential hipster who actually utters words on a regular basis. Instead of elegant master shots, there is conventional, rapid coverage (more “accessible,” if you prefer).

But the most important difference is that Kim has lost his damn mind. There were rumors of this when The Bow debuted at Cannes in 2005 to such disastrous response that it never screened in New York. Summaries say that film was the story of a 60-year-old man who raises an adopted girl from infancy for the purpose of marrying her nubile teenage ass when she turned 17. Gross -- and apparently unredeemed by stylish execution. But Time is almost as conceptually nutty.

Ji-woo sits in a coffee shop, waiting for girlfriend Seh-hee (Hyeon-ah Seong) to show up. With the waitress in his line of sight when Seh-hee arrives, the camera racks focus to reveal her patently unstable face. “Why were you looking at the waitress?” See-hee demands. Within five minutes of the opening, she has descended into cat-fight territory with another woman. (A sample of Kim’s female repartee: “Slut!” “Crazy bitch!”) The kicker is when Seh-hee storms out. Ji-woo apologizes for his girlfriend, but the offended party only answers, “She must love you very much. I envy you.” Huh?

Kim’s movies have never suffered from a lack of psychotic characters, leading more unkind detractors to attack not just his work but his character. Most infamously, Tony Rayns once peddled gossip in Film Comment about his “reputedly unconventional sex life,” concluding that the typical Kim protagonist is a stand-in who realizes that “however much he hates women he can’t escape their lure.” Regardless of the responsibility of such readings, there‘s an undeniable streak of misogyny (or just a love of humiliating all of his characters, but particularly the women) running through Kim’s oeuvre, the difference this time being that instead of a freakishly violent man for a protagonist, a mild-mannered guy is persecuted by an unreasonable woman. A friend has suggested -- only half-jokingly -- that Kim advocates rape. Anyone who’s seen Bad Guy -- wherein a rejected suitor kidnaps the object of his affection, forces her into prostitution and gains her undying love -- knows that’s not too far off.

So if Time’s portrait of a possessive woman consumed by what most would consider total insanity is really supposed to serve as a meditation on the difficulties of long-term relationships -- specifically how to stay mentally and physically attracted, if that’s even possible -- more power to Kim. The rest of us can enjoy the most unapologetic, moment-to-moment psychotic film he’s ever delivered; screw intentionality. The very premise (Seh-hee gets plastic surgery and attempts to reappear in Ji-woo’s life without him realizing who she is, to inject the spice back into their relationship) is baroque enough, but it would be unfair enough to describe what comes next. This makes Oldboy look mild.

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