A splendidly naked and exposed view of self-destruction is what South Korean director Ki-duk Kim offers us with his documentary Arirang (2011), turning the focus of his lens to the psychological cage of his own mind. Through a series of self-monologues, jumping between his lucid normality and his drunken depression, Kim tells us a story that is intimate, moving, and at times undeniably ugly.
Kim strips his mind in front of the camera and begins a painful conversation with himself – a mixture of crying, smiling and singing of the Korean folk song Arirang. A ‘director and a human being’, he delves into the deep-end and takes us on a path of facing demons. From a walkthrough of his memories, dwelling on accusations and feelings of betrayal by old friends, to a nightmarish fantastical killing spree when his depression reaches a boiling point, the director attempts to face his own problematic mind. The oil that fuels this particular fire is the guilt of his attempt to portray death on an artistic level without understanding the finality of it, prompted by an accident during filming his last feature, Dream (2008).
The director’s ignorance as to whether his latest film is self-indulgent is evident, but it doesn’t fair to judge Arirang as you would a typical documentary. The concept is there for all to see: the human mind is dark and allusive, feelings and experiences are locked in boxes if they are too much to handle, but they are sooner or later bound to turn into phantom ghosts that haunt us and force us to resolve our terrors – the sole solution being to begin a conversation with his shadow.
What Kim offers is a dive into the darkest recesses of a consciousness; a place where many have refused to even peek. It’s a self-portrayal that requires bravery – there is no shame, no disguise – and for anyone who has not set foot on that dark path of questions and self-doubt, it would be easy to throw stones and claim Arirang as a trite, inaccessible cinematic release of personal emotions.
Arirang is hardly entertaining, astonishing, nor beautiful. It makes no claim at being anything more than it is – an attempt by the director to understand himself and ultimately ‘fix’ his life. For anyone who has endlessly rocked between lucid normality and drunken depression, who has ever sunk this deep into their problematic existence, Kim’s smiling suggestion that his drunken misery is an act is nothing but normal – the genuine self-deception of a broken mind, convincing itself of its own bliss before hitting another wave of obscure self-destruction. Kim invites us in to watch his own frailty, but also the resilience of the human mind, through the journey of a fallen man who learns, grows and survives, battling his own demons.