Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Madness of Kim Ki-young

Imagine walking around Washington, DC on a spring night. You happen upon a museum that’s open, and find out there’s a movie playing inside, so you go in. You’ve never heard of the film or the filmmaker, and you’ve possibly never seen a movie from Korea before. For the next two hours you are pinned to your seat watching a husband, wife and housemaid alternately screaming and shambling around like zombies while repeatedly trying to kill and/or fuck each other in a claustrophobic house full of madly ticking clocks and gaudy stained-glass lampshades. This happened to one lucky couple on Friday night.

I met them after our screening of Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire ’82, the third iteration of the out-of-control love triangle plot that he first unleashed in his most famous film, The Housemaid (1960). The couple had arrived a bit late, so they missed my introduction, in which I tried to prepare people for Kim’s uniquely outlandish aesthetic. Kim is most often compared to Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray, directors with very distinct, florid styles, but with Kim you also have to stir in a bit of Roger Corman and William Castle. You half expect Vincent Price to be lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce.

Kim’s films tend to begin with a modicum of normalcy, then quickly accelerate into total hysteria. (The Housemaid films are apparently based on an actual incident). There are no half measures. Characters are either yelling, pawing at each other in lust or anger, or nearly catatonic, and are often conflicted as to whether they are trying to kill themselves or somebody else. The soundtracks bubble with noise. Visual compositions are crowded with people and objects and, in the color films, garish and clashing. (One Korean critic has remarked that you can almost always identify a Kim Ki-young film based on a single image.)

When the couple approached me in the lobby, agog and stunned, I gave them some background on Kim (the kind of information you can find here), and explained that what those of us who love him value is his exuberance and individuality. I can think of no other filmmaker whose style is at once so personal and so deeply crazy. When they asked me if what they just saw was typical of Korean movies (or Korea in general), I told them that Kim was unique in all the world of cinema, and assured them that what they just saw very rarely happens in the average Korean home.

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