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Venice winning Pieta director is a soft-spoken ‘monster’

Kim’s “Pieta” was the first South Korean film to take top honors at Venice.

YANGPYEONG, South Korea: The near-death of an actress in an accident while filming nearly ended director Kim Ki-duk’s career four years ago.

But after making “Pieta,” which took best picture at this year’s Venice Film Festival, he is now South Korea’s most feted auteur.

The incident, in which an actress playing a character who hanged herself fainted with the rope around her neck and was cut down by Kim himself, shook the filmmaker so badly it changed his views on mortality.

Hit with a subsequent wave of staff departures, he retreated from the world to live in a wooden shack he built himself about an hour outside of Seoul.

“For the past two to three years, I believed there was no value in my life any more and did not make any movies,” said the soft-spoken 52-year-old, his hair tied back and wearing shabby chestnut-colored Korean traditional clothes.

“I hated everything. Then I thought life was way too long,” Kim said of his self-imposed exile.

But the working-class Kim, who has been tagged by some feminist critics as “all evil, no good,” a misogynist and even a psychopath, picked himself up to make “Arirang” in 2011 and then the ultraviolent “Pieta.”

“Pieta” depicts the relationship between a heartless loan shark and a middle-aged woman who says she is his mother. Although critics say it is less brutal than many of Kim’s other films, it still features mutilation, sexual violence and cannibalism as the loan shark feeds the woman his own flesh and rapes her.

The movie, which Kim said he made as a comment on capitalism in Korea, scooped the Golden Lion award at Venice, where one critic termed it “intense.”

“I felt that people still overlook the essence and that they are overly judgmental about a certain scene or a person,” he said when asked about the frequent negative comments about his movies or his personality.

The movie is shot in the Cheonggye district of central Seoul, once a maze of factories and sweatshops that has now been largely bulldozed. The newly shiny urban area in the film is a place where people are so poor they are prepared to barter their body parts for cash.

“Extreme capitalism is a global phenomenon ... Pieta asks its first question about these issues and secondly, it raises the problem of how money dissolves family and human relations,” Kim said of his 18th work, the first South Korean film to win a major international award.

Kim was born in 1960 and his education went only as far as middle school. He then worked in the factories that helped power South Korea into an industrial nation before giving it all up to go to Paris to draw.

Back in Korea, the self-taught director debuted with his low-budget movie “Crocodile” in 1996. He has remained an outsider and a minority taste ever since, describing himself as a “monster who grew on his inferiority complex.”

“[It] is an element that makes me train myself harder and grow bigger,” Kim said. “The word ‘monster’ sounds as if it’s something enormous, unidentifiable and predatory, but monster means monster. I don’t think it’s that bad.”

Korea’s critics appear to be softening. They note that his films appear to have become more accessible and that something “Kiduk-esque” has faded from his movies.

“While he has sought aesthetic aspects before, now there are signs that he’s trying to shift to moral aspects,” said Lee Taek-Gwang, a cultural critic and a professor of English literature at Kyunghee University.

Kim appears willing to accept the risk he may become more popular, but admits it is not something he’s actively seeking.

“Well, I think it’s something I should reflect on if many think I’ve become popular or audience-friendly,” Kim said when asked whether his work had become more approachable.

“Even though I’m not saying they are wrong, I feel I still have cruel scenes and something gruesome [in my films].”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 25, 2012, on page 16.

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