BUSAN, South Korea — The retrospective on Kim Kee-duk isn't likely to turn too many heads at BIFF this year. In fact, the 77-year-old genre director turned film professor is not even the most famous South Korean director named Kim Ki-duk, as most people would think of the 51-year-old controversial art-house filmmaker who made Bad Guy (2001) and Samaria (2004).
The older, and far lesser known, Kim Kee-duk did a lot for Korean cinema in its early stages. He was prolific in the 1960s, especially when he established a reputation as a reliable entertainer rather than an auteur director. He tried his hand in several genres, and it’s obvious from the selection of Kim’s films that the Korean Film Archive wanted to exhibit the range of his genre work: Five Marines represents the war genre; The North and South, melodrama; Buy My Fist, sports; and Monster Yonggari, sci-fi.
Kim’s films are naturally derivative of other genre movies, and at times the simplicity of the shots and the editing taxes a modern viewer’s patience. In Five Marines, a story from the front lines of the Korean War, Kim indulges in large flashback sequences, one for every marine. These scenes are often introduced after somebody asks a question like, “Where are you from?” Then the narrator of the flashback looks teary-eyed into the distance and begins, “I lived with my mother…” This has all the subtlety of Wayne and Garth making wavy hands and going doo-dul-loo doo-dul-loo doo-dul-loo. In the melodrama The North and South, in which a North Korean soldier risks his life crossing to the South only to find that his girlfriend has married a South Korean captain, shocking revelations are often followed by track-forward reaction shots, catching the characters in (again) teary-eyed dum-dum-DUUUM moments.
Fortunately, though they’re not likely to awe the viewer technically, Kim’s films are valuable cultural artifacts for anybody interested in post-war Korean culture. They are windows into the personalities and anxieties of Koreans past and present. The characters in Five Marines are especially revealing. Two of the marines hardly pass a minute without arguing about whether it is worse to be a dumb hillbilly or a cowardly city boy, yet even as they curse at one another the viewer senses their mutual affection. In one moment they bicker over cigarettes, and in the next one casually reveals that he has never touched a woman's body, not even his wife's. These two marines share a particularly Korean friendship, one I sometimes recognize in my friends and acquaintances. During one of its lengthy flashbacks, the film also exhibits the long-suffering ajumma who has sacrificed everything for the good of her son. She's not afraid to let him know, either, and this relationship too feels very Korean.
The North and South is remarkable in that it takes a North Korean soldier, Jang Il-gu, as its most sympathetic, noblest character. That the film hopes for reunification and continues to view North and South Koreans as brothers is to be expected. However, the film goes further and suggests that South Koreans, particularly Lee Dae-ro, the man who married Jang's girlfriend and has become father to Jang's son, are somehow lacking. Whereas Jang sacrificed everything for love, Lee is filled with doubt when his marriage is challenged. This man from the North is strong, passionate, and romantic. He is willing to die for what he desires; at one point he stares into the barrel of a pistol and scoffs, actually challenging his tormentor to shoot. In comparison, Lee suffers from indecision. He drinks alcohol to calm his nerves and lashes out at weaker men. This admiration for North Koreans stands in stark contrast with contemporary portrayals of starving, weak men who envy the South Korean the luxuries and benefits of their modern lifestyles.
In brief, Kim Kee-duk's films have plenty to offer the viewer willing to overlook some outdated filmmaking. Buy a ticket. Learn some history. Feel cultured. Then, go back to watching samurai movies.
Kim Kee-duk Retrospective Line-up
? Five Marines (1961)
KIM Kee-duk’s debut film – a war film removed from a simplistic anti-Communist plot that focuses on the human entity on the battlefield.
? The Barefooted Young (1964)
The representative “Youth Film” – portrays a tragic love story of the gangster Doo-su and the diplomat’s daughter Joanna.
? The North and South (1965)
A war melodrama that portrays one woman’s tragic relationship with two men, one from the South and one from the North.
? Buy My Fist (1966)
A sports film about a boxing champion who quits the ring because of the guilt he feels about the death of an opponent during a match. The film gained significant attention after famous boxing champion Kim Ki-soo was cast in the lead.
? Horse-year Bride (1966)
An exceptional sex comedy about the social prejudice against females born in the Year of the Horse in that era.
? I Will Be a King for the Day (1966)
The first Korean film to record the actors voices during production. The film tells a story about jaebol (Korean-style family-oriented business conglomerate) Wang Bal-san’s family.
? Monster Yonggari (1967)
The first monster film to portray the monster, Yonggari. It used Japanese special effects and Korean imagination.
? Until That Day (1969)
An unconventional, complicated melodrama, the film exposes the womanly desires of a widow who works as a dorm supervisor.
To read more of Michaels reviews, check out his website, gotomovieville.com