Han-gi forced himself upon Sun-hwa, despite her boyfriend's objections

Bad Guy (나쁜 남자) – ★★★☆☆

Bad Guy (나쁜 남자)

Bad Guy (나쁜 남자)

Within intense drama Bad Guy (나쁜 남자), celebrated-yet-reviled auteur Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) continues to explore the themes that simultaneously make him such a fascinating and disturbing filmmaker. For this installment the director dissects the class divide, misogyny and his own unique brand of ‘Han’ by shining a spotlight on the inhabitants of a red light district within Seoul, and the relative ease in which people find themselves employed there.

As is often the case with the auteur, Bad Guy controversially blurs and straddles the lines of morality in locating love within bleak environments, again employing a mute protagonist in emphasising the importance, or ‘truth’, of action over words. The result is an interesting exploration of an oft-ignored area in society, one that – due to the voyeuristic perversity within – will certainly not win over feminists, and is not for the faint hearted.

While walking the streets of Seoul one day, mute pimp Han-gi (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현) comes across the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, art student Sun-hwa (Seo-won (서원). Despite the presence of Sun-hwa’s boyfriend, Han-gi forces himself upon her for a kiss, shocking the local public and resulting in a beating from a group of soldiers passing by. Disgraced and humiliated, Han-gi seeks revenge and entraps Sun-hwa into taking out an unsecured loan. When she fails to fulfill the extensive payments, Sun-hwa finds herself working in a red-light district using her body to pay the debt, all the while watched by Han-gi.

Han-gi forced himself upon Sun-hwa, despite her boyfriend's objections

Han-gi forces himself upon Sun-hwa, despite her boyfriend’s objections

Bad Guy is arguably Kim Ki-duk’s most extensive exploration of class within Korean culture, as criminal Han-gi, who occupies the dark underworld of society, is seemingly at odds with the middle class veneer inhabited by Sun-hwa. Yet the director routinely alludes to the similarities between the two central protagonists, with the severity of crime the marked difference. Han-gi may well be a violent pimp, but Sun-hwa also rips pages from books in stores rather than paying, and also steals money from a wallet rather than hand it to the relevant authorities. As Sun-hwa’s crimes are generally more acceptable, as well as conveying purity and innocence as a virginal university student, Han-gi simultaneously desires and reviles her believing himself unworthy of such a woman. His conflicting psychology ultimately leads to the most controversial aspect of the film – Han-gi voyeuristically watching through a two-way mirror as Sun-hwa, reluctant to commit to life as a prostitute, is routinely raped by clients. The way in which Kim Ki-duk frames such sequences are interesting as in order to view the atrocities Han-gi must part a curtain much in the same way as a cinema screen before the start of a film, and as such the director implicates the audience as sharing the same voyeuristic, perverse, sexual desires and feelings of inadequacy as Han-gi, much in the same way as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Alred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). However despite the technical and narrative achievements, there is also no escaping the notion of the male rape fantasy at play as with Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), as a young beautiful middle class woman is repeatedly violated until she accepts her position as a sexual slave.

Sun-hwa finds herself working in a red-light district, alone and abused

Sun-hwa finds herself working in a red-light district, alone and abused

Despite the ways in which Kim Ki-duk attempts to symbolically unify Han-gi and Sun-hwa – through photographs of a couple with faces removed and displays of protection and obsession and so forth – it is still requires a leap of believability to accept the co-dependency and love that rather rapidly appears between them. Such an event will certainly not please feminists particularly as their relationship as prostitute and pimp continues even after true emotions have been declared enforcing archaic patriarchal ideology. Yet Han-gi’s refusal to touch her as he believes he is not worthy is quite endearing, although quite why he would continue to employ his love as a sexual slave is also baffling.

Jo Jae-hyeon performs the role of mute pimp Han-gi incredibly well and is highly convincing as the brute thug. His inability to speak symbolised through an horrific scar across his throat forces the actor to convey his emotions physically, and he not only succeeds but is compelling as well making such a vile ‘bad guy’ a sympathetic, albeit appalling, character.

As student-turned prostitute Sun-hwa, Seo-won is captivating. Despite the title, Bad Guy is her story and the actress is excellent in conveying the spoilt bourgeois traits of the character that gradually evolve into a lack of self-worth and co-dependency. Seo-won’s performance during the horrific rape scenes are powerful and disturbing, building incredible empathy with the character so that tragedy is keenly felt when she begins to embrace her new career.

Han-gi and Sun-hwa develop a bizarre co-dependency

Han-gi and Sun-hwa develop a bizarre co-dependency

Verdict:

As is to be expected with auteur Kim Ki-duk, Bad Guy contains an explosive and controversial mix of social, gendered and sexual relationships. His artistic merits are not as pronounced as with his other work such as The Isle or Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, yet the challenging narrative is as interesting as ever and explores the issues of the red-light district well, especially the ease in which people can find themselves working in the sex trade. The misogynistic content will not win over feminists or critics of his work, yet Bad Guy remains a simultaneously fascinating and appalling viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

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The relationship between Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik becomes obsessive

The Isle (섬) – ★★★☆☆

The Isle (섬)

The Isle (섬)

Director Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) has, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, a reputation for misogyny and misogynistic violence. And, again as with Hitchcock, Kim Ki-duk locates such archaic principles within patriarchal figures and psychologically disturbed men, simultaneously presenting and critiquing the gender inequality within a socio-cultural context. For feminist film critics the submersion of violent sexism within such protagonists serves to absolve the directors of the ‘pleasures’ derived through representations of violence against women, displacing their desires and naturalising sex and violence as one and the same. Accusations such as these aimed at Kim Ki-duk are largely founded due to the release of The Isle (섬).

The Isle is an art house film that, due to the nature of violence, sex and animal cruelty within, has been the subject of controversy ever since its inception and the resultant vomiting and fainting of foreign critics. As such The Isle joined – or rather, was a founder of – the list of films unfortunately promoted as ‘extreme’ Asian filmmaking. For his part, Kim Ki-duk claimed that the film is simply another representation of his obsession with ‘han’ – the feeling of oppression, isolation, and injustice – and the love that can blossom under such circumstances.

Hee-jin (Seo Jeong (서정) is the patron of a fishing resort deep in the Korean countryside, owning several floating huts on a portion of a river. As a mute, she silently ferries customers from the shore to the huts and takes care of any requests ranging from snacks to coffee, and even sex. This service is also supplied by the ‘coffee girls’ from the local brothel whom she also reluctantly ferries, and Hee-jin’s life of servitude continues in this monotonous fashion. Her interest is piqued however when murderer-on-the-run Hyeon-sik (Kim Yoo-seok (김유석) arrives to rent a hut, in need of solitude to lay low while police officers attempt to track him down. Tormented by his past deeds Hyeon-sik attempts suicide yet is stopped by Hee-jin and the pair begin to develop a relationship, one that becomes incredibly intense and obsessive through the bizarre games they play, and actions from which threaten to engulf them both.

The cinematography in The Isle emulates traditional paintings

The cinematography in The Isle emulates traditional paintings

The Isle is best viewed as an art house film, as the symbolism and cinematography are sumptuous throughout. The composition of shots, particularly of the landscape, are quite beautiful and exemplify Kim Ki-duk’s former calling as an artist. The incredible scenery is matched by the isolation conveyed by the fishing huts and Hee-jin’s meagre existence, while the surreal other-worldly weather instills sadness and longing. Within this framework are Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik, two protagonists akin to wandering lost souls in the ethereal landscape that lack purpose or direction, giving the lake a purgatorial sensibility. As with other Kim Ki-duk protagonists, Hee-jin is mute and utilises her physicality to convey her psychological state which publicly tends to represent that of a stereotypical meek woman in patriarchal culture; she serves patrons snacks, coffee and sex without question, acting as ‘servant’ and ‘whore’, an apparent victim of the indomitable phallus. Yet Hee-jin’s genuine character is revealed when abused, as when her earnings from sleeping with a customer are thrown into the water, she calculatingly stabs him in the dark of the night with her own, arguably much more dangerous, penetrative device. Interestingly, Hee-jin’s employs her ‘detachable phallus’ in order to save Hyeon-sik as she startles him during a suicide attempt, an act he repays in making models from wire. The Isle is ultimately concerned with the articulation of archaic notions of gendered ‘power’, and a relationship that develops between a man and a woman in such an unequal vacuum; when Hee-jin expresses kindness and innocence Hyeon-sik responds through attempted rape.

The infamous fish hook scenes also exemplify gendered notions of power. Afraid of being arrested by police and with no other utensils available, Hyeon-sik swallows fishing hooks and pulls sharply. In doing so Hyeon-sik self-mutilates his orifice of power – his commanding, masculine voice, which ironically had been somewhat castrated by his (coded-feminine) sensitivity. Concurrently, when Hee-jin is threatened by Hyeon-sik’s departure, she places the hooks within her vagina and pulls sharply, self-mutilating her orifice of power – her ability to engage in sex, intimacy, or procreation. Both protagonists are subconsciously aware of their gendered abilities, and employ them for selfish results. The self-mutilation also allows for striking imagery as they are reeled in by the fishing rod, symbolically drawn to each other through pleasure and pain. Viewed in this symbolic art-house context, The Isle is an interesting exploration of the inequalities of gender in Korean society, and hardly necessitates the vomiting and fainting that so afflicted foreign critics.

The relationship between Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik becomes obsessive

The relationship between Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik becomes obsessive

In terms of performance The Isle conveys an array of emotional and neurotic states through the physicality of the actors, while verbal exchanges tend to be fraught with lies, pain and cursing. Seo Jeong is incredibly intense as Hee-jin, with facial expressions full of rage, jealousy, angst and heartache all portrayed with vehemence. However Hee-jin’s actions are often perplexing at times with motivations that are difficult to comprehend, which adds to the assumption that she may well be mentally ill or suffering from a prior trauma. Kim Yoo-seok as Hyeon-sik also exhibits such a difficulty in suspending disbelief, as he initially is kind and sweet-natured yet later becomes an abhorrent example of misogyny and chauvinism. Despite this, Kim Yoo-seok’s performance is competent in portraying the murderer whose morals dissipate. Both protagonists are flawed and psychologically unbalanced, yet still attempt to create the idealised perception of a couple in establishing a relationship and moving into a house (fishing hut) in the countryside.

The animal cruelty has been a source of controversy which are difficult to disagree with, yet such scenes are loaded with symbolism that convey the emotional distress of the protagonists. Frustrations are expressed through the chopping of live fish; the desire to change identity is conveyed through skinning a frog alive; and the reluctance to continue living the same existence is depicted through the stubbornness of a dog forcibly dragged onto a boat despite being petrified of water.

Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik's relationship has a sadomasochistic  edge

Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik’s relationship is both sadomasochistic and erotic

Verdict:

The Isle is an intense art-house film that explores – and graphically presents – misogynistic violence, sadomasochism, and animal cruelty in the foundation of a couple’s relationship where such savage acts and severe gender inequality is considered normal. The controversy it has courted is warranted, more so if not approached with symbolism in mind, yet despite this the social issues presented with stark realism by Kim Ki-duk are damning regarding patriarchy and the treatment of women and as such further instigates an important area of debate. The Isle will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but if scrutinized for the artistic content and social debates within – rather than the fabricated notion of ‘extreme’ Asian filmmaking – The Isle offers a unique viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

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