“Kim decided to retreat into an interior world where he does not need to confront or take but where his time can be sucked up by shitting in fields, smoking fish, getting drunk, and singing.”
During the period between 1996 and 2008, the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk produced a grand total of fifteen films. Shooting with minimal crew and extremely limited budgets, Kim moved from production to production, frequently working on the script to one film while filming another. The reward for his boundless energy and intellectual drive came in 2004 when the Berlin and Venice film festivals both decided to give him their best director awards, for Samaritan Girl and 3-Iron respectively. Being recognised by two such prestigious foreign festivals made Kim a national treasure and not only ensured his ability to make any film he wanted with any actor he chose, it also launched directorial careers for two of his assistants who began by making films written and produced by Kim before going on to find work in the studio system. However, since Dream in 2008, Kim has not written, directed, or produced. Kim’s creative energy — once seemingly boundless — ebbed away, begging the question “Why?”
Shot single-handed using a Mark II digital camera, Arirang is an autobiographical documentary in which Kim interviews himself in an attempt to make sense of why it is that he can no longer make films. The result is an intimate, moving, and occasionally distressing portrait of a man trying to use the medium of cinema to both expose his personal failings and cure them.
Arirang opens with a man puttering around a shack in the Korean hills: Sleeping in a tent inside a wooden hut, he emerges into the light draped in over-washed clothes and crowned with a halo of shaggy hair. Sliding his cracked and dirt-encrusted feet into a pair of decaying leather slippers, he pads out into the garden outside his hut and defecates into a pit. From there, we see him making coffee using an apparatus he has clearly built himself, smoking fish, and cooking rice. His day is dominated by the simple actions of staying alive — actions transformed into elaborate time-sinks by the spirit of self-denial and abnegation that hangs above the shack. This spirit is not to be confused with a spirit of poverty as the shack is not in the middle of nowhere (long-distance shots suggest it is not in the mountains but in the suburbs, walking distance from blocks of apartments); and the man is clearly not impoverished (the tent contains a huge and decidedly new-looking Apple computer and the film itself is clearly shot with a cinema-grade camera). This man is Kim Ki-duk. Once a dynamic and inventive director, he now spends his days subsisting and his nights getting hammered.
Obviously aware that something has gone terribly wrong in his life, Kim uses the camera to interview himself. When sober and clear-headed, he records himself asking tough questions. When drunk and sentimental, he allows his heart to pour out in an attempt to find an answer to these questions. In between beautifully composed shots of a compact, ordered, but ultimately emotionally squalid life, a story begins to emerge.
Kim’s last film, Dream, features a sequence in which a female character is hanged in prison. When this scene was being shot, something happened with the special effects and the actress wound up literally hanging by her neck in front of the camera. Instantly aware that something was amiss, Kim sprang to his feet and cut the actress down, but in that single horrifying moment, Kim was confronted by death and it destroyed him psychologically. As Kim himself explains, prior to the incident, he saw death as a mystical gateway between one world and another, not so much an end as a change of state. However, while it is easy to accept this idea in principle, the reality of death is that it seems very final indeed. Mortified by his willingness not just to place his actress in a dangerous situation but also by the carelessness of his decision to deal with death on an artistic level without really understanding it, Kim decided to retreat into an interior world where he does not need to confront or take but where his time can be sucked up by shitting in fields, smoking fish, getting drunk, and singing.
As a sober Kim reviews the footage from the previous night, he smiles with admiration at his own increasingly baroque musings on death and the divine, and this seems to encourage him to produce more and more lavish theories on the nature of existence. Indeed, much of the film’s running time is composed of a drunken Kim speaking directly to camera with tears streaming down his face. But then the sober Kim will smile and explain that he is acting. On the one hand, the musings of the drunken Kim are true, but on another, they are artificial, fake, and ghoulishly self-indulgent in their emotional exhibitionism. He seems to realise this because his remarks on acting add a question mark to both the authenticity of his pain and the authenticity of the documentary itself. Is Kim Ki-duk the next Joaquin Phoenix?
Aside from metaphysical peroration, Kim also picks over the remains of some of his relationships. Now living in complete social isolation, he explains how he has allowed his working relationships to decay because of what he feels was an act of gross betrayal. Kim sees himself (though he never admits as much) as a sort of paternal figure; and as “father” to his assistants, it is only right that he should have helped them to launch their directorial careers by giving them his scripts, his name, and his money in order to get the projects off the ground. However, when both assistants used their first films to acquire work in the studio system, Kim felt completely betrayed. These were children he had brought up, but they had refused to follow his example. This act of betrayal soured Kim on the entire film industry, and so he sits in his shack with his homemade espresso machine and his sentimental songs.
One of the film’s running themes is the song “Arirang.” Originally a Korean folk song, “Arirang” has since become a sort of unofficial national anthem and cultural ur-text that is seen as central to the Korean experience. The song’s lyrics speak chiefly of love and separation and so can be read both as a sort of existential ode to the misery of the world and as a sentimental plea for Korea to be made whole again. In short, it is a song for all miseries and all occasions, and this is why Kim keeps returning to it again and again and again.
Much like the suggestion that he might be acting, the use of a song as generically miserable as “Arirang” serves to question the authenticity of Kim’s self-diagnosis. “Arirang” can be sung at any time because while it articulates, it does not deconstruct. Its diagnosis is so general that it applies to all ills, and the same might well be said of Kim’s diagnoses of his own miseries. Is he really unable to work because two assistants failed to follow his example? Or because he cannot come to terms with the fact that death may well be the end of life? These seem less like insightful diagnoses than convenient tragedies that can be draped across Kim’s problems in order to allow him to vocalise his misery without actually analysing it — convenient fictions that smell of untruth.
Toward the end of the film, Kim’s mood starts to improve, and he talks about the need to make a film. Initially, it seems that he is talking about the film we are watching, but the truth is a bit more complex. Kim explains that he began his working life as a machinist and these skills allowed him to build his espresso machine. It rapidly becomes clear that he is now deploying those skills in order to build something a good deal more ominous: a gun.
The final scenes of the film see Kim driving into town to the homes of his former assistants. The implication is that he shoots them dead, but obviously, he did no such thing. The closing shot of the film is of a shrine Kim seems to have built to his cinematic career in some previously unseen basement. A world away from the squalor of the shack, the shrine is made up of old scripts, awards, and posters for Kim’s previous films. The shrine-like quality of the room chimes with Kim’s final actions. He knows he is stuck; he knows he is unhappy; and so he attempts to cure himself through film. Initially this cure requires the camera to take the role of the therapist who allows the patient to unburden himself, but when cinema-as-source-of-truth does not free him from his misery, Kim turns to cinema-as-source-of-fiction and so acts out the lie of the revenge fantasy. No more dishonest than the thin justifications Kim offers when drunk, these fantasies are an attempt to provide Kim with useful lies that will help him out of his funk. Are they effective? Well, he got a film out of them didn’t he?