Directed by Kim Ki-duk
Written by Kim Ki-duk
South Korea, 2011
What separates the writers and directors who take their craft to heart may not only be felt in their films, although the latter is a reasonably accurate measuring tool, but also in what they communicate more directly to viewers and listeners who pay attention to their interviews. Who takes themselves very seriously, who is merely having fun, who is looking to expand the language of cinema, who is looking to respect tradition, and so on and so forth. Interviews are one form of direct communication, but so would be a documentary in which a given director spends over 90 minutes filming him or herself as they discuss their career, its impact on their lives as well as that of others, their dreams, aspirations and their views on what their work’s place in the world might be. Such is the strategy employed by the highly respected South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who explains to the audience why he has not made a film since 2008’s Dream.
For those unfamiliar with the director’s body of work, or who are simply not privy to what the man even looks like, the start of Arirang can serve as a bit of a test of one’s patience. Star Kim Ki-duk walks within and around his cabin in the Korean countryside, inside of which he has even set up a tent given how frigid the temperature is. Simple tools which he has learned to use to his advantage help him stay warm, cook soups and prepare coffee. When nature calls, he ventures a few paces away from his dwelling shack, shovels himself a quaint little hole in the ground and…no further details required. A cat appears to be his only companion. The initial 10 minutes or so are entirely devoid of any dialogue, as the director allows the unsuspecting viewers a few moments to acclimatize themselves with the setting and pacing of this unorthodox movie. It is only by the 15 minute mark that Arirang reveals, slowly but surely, who this man is and what he is doing. The hermit in question is of course the director himself, and his purpose for leading this solitary episode is to confess some of his most personal emotions, recollections and impressions of his career as a filmmaker, a career which has earned him the highest of praise on more than once occasion.
‘…there are certainly some artistically and emotionally noteworthy qualities about it which just might win over some more willing and patient viewers.
This is exactly the sort of film that, by the time it concludes, will have festival goers either wishing for their money back or taken aback by its apparent profundity. A blanket statement that may be, but given the often fickle nature of the movie goer, such an outcome would not come as a surprise. Another issue may arise in the event that the viewer who takes a chance on Arirang has never seen any of Kim’s previous efforts, for the central figure frequently refers to many of the movies which earned him the name recognition he can call his own today. Arirang might therefore immediately turn a lot of people off, but there are certainly some artistically and emotionally noteworthy qualities about it which just might win over some more willing and patient viewers.
What is curious about the film is how it fluctuates between fact and fiction. The picture is, in many respects, a very true documentary in how it functions as a prolonged, unhinged one-sided interview. Kim helps the audience along by clearly stating what it is he is about to talk about, one example being when he paraphrases the question so many people have supposedly been asking him the past few years ‘Why haven’t I made a movie since Dream?’ He will subsequently proceed to describe as best he can what caused him to retreat into public obscurity in the 3 years since. Only, his confessions seem to be ‘acted out’, for lack of a better term, at random moments. There are most definitely specific scenes in which director Kim speaks from the heart, such as when coming to terms with the memories of an accident which nearly caused a fatality on the set of his previous film. On separate occasions the viewer cannot help but guess that Kim is embellishing his frustrations towards certain people, like when admitting (if he even is actually doing that) his disdain for actors who become famous for villains, a role the director believes is the easiest to play. One need only ham up the performance and get wryly, which is precisely what he does as he vents his frustrations. It is tongue in cheek to a degree, an element which destabilizes some of the honesty found in other scenes. Kim continuously plays with the documentary genre, at times adhering as closely as possible to its traditionally objective perspective, only to forgo that technique and play act moments later.
‘The director is evidently toying with the audience’s perspective, yet doing so by basing himself on some genuinely felt emotions.
By the end, it should not matter how much of what is captured in each frame is perfectly honest and how much of it is fictional representation of the director’s pet peeves or deepest desires. Arirang is by its very nature an experimental film. To top that off, the movie’s experimentation is felt on a meta level too, adding further perplexity to the task of determining what exactly the movie is trying to be. Director Kim has made a name for himself telling fictional stories rich in drama. Arirang begins as a documentary, but along the way Kim abandons that aspect, given in to his personal storytelling ways His own experiment at documenting himself has lead to a fictional movie, and that failure within the movie thus makes Arirang as whole an experimental picture. There is also a lot of strange winking at the audience, most notably on the occasions when Kim’s voice over confessions thematically mirror actions taking place on screen either in the moment or a couple of scenes later. A very peculiar example of this is when he tells the story of how someone on a set once escaped death by a narrow margin in a scene that involved a hanging. It is only a few minutes later that the camera reveals Kim has decorated a light bulb with the decapitated head of a fish, itself hanging from a tiny hook and covering the light bulb. The directly is evidently toying with the audience’s perspective, yet doing so by basing himself on some genuinely felt emotions.
What remains are the ideas and thoughts Kim has to share. Each reveals some truths about the revered artist, even though the manner in which he goes about telling them leave the viewer to wonder how much of it is to be taken seriously. When compared to the director’s overall oeuvre, Arirang is relegated to the category of ‘curiosity’ but certainly fans of the director who understand his career will find the curiosity more than satisfying enough for their liking.