The hysterical mother severs her son's penis, sparking a chain of events

Moebius (뫼비우스) – ★★★☆☆

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

The controversy that continually surrounds director Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) ultimately stems from his consistent explorations into the nature of sexuality, and the misogynistic representations that arise through them. Director Kim is clearly aware how such explicit sexual debates generate audience interest, as with each subsequent film he seemingly seeks to outdo himself by exploring ever-darker – and for many, disturbing – areas of desire and pleasure.

Incest appears to be director Kim’s current interest as, following on from his acclaimed and award-winning Pieta, comes Moebius (뫼비우스). Featuring zero dialogue, the film is an extremely literal Freudian interpretation of sexuality within the family unit. The story is interesting but far from subtle as the Oedipus complex, female hysteria and phallus appropriation is viscerally reenacted. Ultimately Kim’s film is intriguing to watch, yet Moebius lacks the depth and finesse of his prior work.

Pushed to breaking point by her husband’s (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현) infidelity, the mother (Lee Eun-woo (이은우) arms herself with a knife and attempts to sever his penis while he sleeps. Foiled in her attempt, the mother then decides to punish their son (Seo Yeong-joo (서영주) instead, cutting off the boy’s manhood. After the mother runs away in shame, the father and son attempt to rebuild their lives and learn to experience pleasure through pain. However when the mother returns, their lives become increasingly fraught.

The hysterical mother severs her son's penis, sparking a chain of events

The hysterical mother severs her son’s penis, sparking a chain of events

Director Kim has never been most subtle of filmmakers, yet his work often contains interesting symbolism that alludes to the depth of his characters and/or the socio-cultural issues he explores. With Moebius, however, such sensibilities take somewhat of a back seat as Freudian theories are quite literally recreated on screen. This is acutely ironic as Freud’s work is often rooted within symbolic moments of everyday life, notably in this case the Oedipus complex and castration anxiety, yet director Kim seems unconcerned with such motifs and instead directs the actors to perform the frameworks physically. The result is a mixture of intrigue and horror, as ‘the monstrous castrating mother’ fulfills the promise of her title, while the themes of incest associated with the Oedipus complex become increasingly explicit. It’s thoroughly interesting to see Freud’s theories play out, however the absurdity of it all can occasionally be cringe inducing, or worse, comical.

Father and son become close through sadism

Father and son become close through sadism

Roles with no dialogue are challenging at best, but with scenes such as the ones in Moebius it must undoubtedly be extremely arduous. Luckily all three principle actors perform convincingly. Lee Eun-woo is exceptional in her joint roles as an hysterical mother as well as a convenience store clerk. As the mother Lee Eun-woo conveys a powerful raw intensity that is simultaneously frightening yet attractive, while her vulnerability  and inner strength as the clerk is touching. Teenager Seo Yeong-joo also performs admirably as the son who experiences horrific trauma. At 15 years old the role is quite a shocking one given the explicit scenes in which he is required, yet he does very well particularly when conveying the pleasure and pain from sadist acts.

Phallic appropriation abounds as the Oedpius complex plays out

Phallic appropriation abounds as the Oedpius complex plays out

Moebius (뫼비우스) is yet another powerful and disturbing exploration of sexuality from director Kim Ki-duk. In quite literally – and explicitly – interpreting Freudian theories on screen, director Kim has crafted a very interesting film yet due to the far from unsubtle adaptation the absurdity of it all can often be cringeworthy and/or comical. Lee Eun-woo is undoubtedly the breakout star of the film as she performs with incredibly intensity throughout as the monstrous jealous mother. Moebius is not for the faint-hearted.

★★★☆☆

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The hysterical mother severs her son's penis, sparking a chain of events

Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (뫼비우스) – His Most Controversial Film to Date?

Kim Ki-duk's Moebius (뫼비우스)

Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (뫼비우스)

No stranger to controversy, director Kim Ki-duk’s latest film Moebius (뫼비우스) appears to be pushing more boundaries than ever before. Billed as his most controversial film to date, sexual thriller Moebius explores the themes of incest, genital dismemberment, and dark sado-masochistic desires within a family unit, employing the director’s trademark silent characterisation in emphasising the severity of their actions.

The story depicts a mother (Lee Eun-woo (이은우) who, sick of her husband’s (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현) constant infidelities, plots her own unique brand of revenge. However the conflict dramatically backfires upon their son (Seo Yeong-joo (서영주), with the resulting shame forcing the mother into exile. While the father and son attempt to build their relationship once again, their lives are once again thrown into turmoil when the mother returns, sparking a dramatic chain of events towards an even darker path.

The poster for Moebius reveals disturbing imagery

The poster for Moebius reveals disturbing imagery

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moebius was initially rejected by The Korean Media Rating Board upon submission, bestowing a ‘restricted’ rating upon the film. Yet as there are no cinemas in Korea that are licensed to screen ‘restricted’ rated films, the decision effectively meant that director Kim’s latest could not be released domestically. In a statement the Board explained, “The story and contents of the movie are highly violent, terrifying and harmful to underage audiences. The unethical and unsocial expressions of sexual activity between immediate family members make it only suitable for screening in limited theaters”. However, after director Kim edited several of the more controversial scenes from the film, Moebius was finally approved for domestic release, which should occur sometime in early September.

Interestingly such issues have not effected director Kim’s reputation abroad, as the film has been selected by both Venice and Toronto for their respective film festivals. Kim’s Pieta was the big winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival, scooping the highly coveted ‘Golden Lion’ award for best film, while this year’s Moebius will be screened as part of the ‘Out of Competition’ category. Toronto Film Festival are due to screen the film under their ‘Masters’ program, describing the film as bearing, “the clear mark of Kim’s singular genius. It’s a modern Greek tragedy bordering on psychological thriller, a pitchblack comedy, a crazy-weird depiction of pain-induced pleasure.”

Love him or loathe him, Kim Ki-duk’s films are consistently fascinating. Audiences will be able to form their own opinions regarding Moebius in early September. Please see below for the trailer.

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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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