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.
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.
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.
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.