Chung Hye-seung’s monograph on Kim Ki-duk is a must-read, and readable, study of Korea’s maverick director

by Philip Gowman on 24 February, 2013

in Book Reviews | Books on Film | Kim Ki-duk

KKD-book-coverChung Hye-seung: Kim Ki-duk
(Contemporary Film Directors series)
University of Illinois Press, 2012, 161pp
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When is the right time to publish a monograph on a living film director? With the KOFIC collection of books, the schedule appears more driven by wanting to get a complete set of directors covered as soon as possible. For a more academic publishing house there are more complex considerations. For an author, there is the additional consideration of one’s own academic workload: if you’ve invested a considerable amount of time studying and researching a director you’ll want to get something in print to bolster that CV before moving on to your next area of study. But whether by luck or design, with Chung’s book on Kim Ki-duk the timing was fortuitous. It was being written presumably as the director was in a self-imposed lull from film-making following the near-fatal accident on the set of Dream. It hit the bookshops soon after the success of Arirang in 2012, a film which to some observers appeared to be Kim’s most emphatic and final farewell to the Korean film establishment. Chung’s monograph therefore had every chance of being the first and most complete review of Kim’s output. And then, immediately after publication, Kim unveiled his most successful film to date – Pieta – which will probably boost sales now that the Venice award has introduced a new generation of Westerners to Kim’s films.

So, does the book deserve those additional readers?

Absolutely.

Far more so than the disappointing collection of essays published by Dis Voir in 2006, this volume sticks to the text and analyses the films. It explores various themes in Kim’s oeuvre – violence, misogyny, post-colonialism, the Neitzschean ressentiment exhibited by disenfranchised individuals ill-equipped to survive in an ultra-competitive society. What makes the analysis more informative is the way it relates some of the themes in the films to some of Kim Ki-duk’s own personal experiences.

She turns her guns on some of Kim’s critics (Tony Rayns gets especially short shrift) but also she seeks to counter some of the criticism of Kim particularly by domestic Korean feminist critics, and goes as far as to propose a neo-feminist view of Birdcage Inn and Samaria. Her discussion is informed by the input from her students, one in particular expressing the view that Samaria is “a gentle depiction of female friendship”.

She examines the lack of dialogue, the muteness of some of the characters, in several of Kim’s films, from the woman in The Isle to the house-breaker in 3-Iron. “The characters in my films are not mute. They just don’t believe in verbal communication,” says Kim in an interview. [1] And in an interview in Time Out (2005) that she quotes, Kim explains that he wants the audience to focus on the characters more closely, and not be distracted by dialogue.

Like other film scholars, Chung is well-versed in the canon of philosophers and psychoanalysts without which it seems that films cannot properly be understood or analysed, but is less obsessive than some in insisting that the multidimensional peg that is Korean cinema has to hammered into the square hole defined by Deleuze, Lacan and others. Granted, there are paragraphs which could easily be cut from the book without harming the analysis one jot. We do not, for example, need to be told about Lacan’s essay on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, still less of Zizek’s reading of it. Nor does a summary of Elizabeth Grosz’s three categories of feminist thinkers add anything to the argument. On the whole though the book wears its learning lightly, and the obvious breadth of Chung’s reading does not get in the way of a clear exposition of her argument.

The final few pages of the book – which recount some of Chung’s personal encounters with the director, are a nice way to end. Chung feels the need to apologise for lack of academic rigour, but five pages without mentioning a French philosopher is a good palette-cleanser. In all, despite its relative brevity, Chung’s work contains an abundance of insights and will repay a second or even a third reading. It is a book which may annoy some of Kim’s critics, but which may also persuade them to reassess Kim’s output. More than anything else it is likely to make you want to re-watch the films you have already seen, and to track down those you haven’t, to see if you agree with her views. And probably that’s the highest praise you can give a book about film.

  1. Quoted in Cédric Lagandré, Spoken Words in Suspense, in the compilation of essays published by Dis Voir, 2006 [back]

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