Released this week alongside his 1996 directorial debut Crocodile, South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang (2011) – the Golden Lion-winner’s first feature for over three years – is a harrowing documentary providing a personal (at times even invasive), look at his life and experiences since a tragic accident on the set of 2008’s Dream. Despite being made as an intrinsically personal, individual project and filmed with only a single discernible camera – much of the film is just a simple head and shoulders shot of Ki-duk as he narrates – this proves to be a masterful piece of emotive and confrontational world cinema.
Arirang is a deeply emotional work of expression from Ki-duk. He opens up about his deepest fears, and he explores exactly what makes us want to be remembered, why we are so desperate to achieve greatness in our lives, and why good and evil are so intrinsically important to our lives. His discussions relating to his creative block and his need to keep making films are eye opening, as are is his meditations on the nature of betrayal and evil. The personal and private nature of these narratives is truly revealed when we see the South Korean weeping on camera, overwhelmed by the experiences and subjects he touches on. It creates a sense of the audience being alongside him, supporting him through these difficulties, as he approaches them so personally.
Also included with the Arirang release is 1996’s Crocodile (Ag-o), which sits comfortably within Ki-duk’s oeuvre as an intense and unsettling experience. The film focuses on unlikely protagonist Crocodile (Jo Jae-hyeon), a man who steals from those who commit suicide in the river which he lives beside, and his companions, a young boy and an old man. They are joined by Hyun-jung, a woman Crocodile saves from the water – only to keep her as a sex slave. An extraordinarily dark film, but Ki-duk still manages to produce to balance this with flashes of humanity.
For a low-budget film, Crocodile is surprisingly effective in its visual style. Ki-duk pays special attention to light and reflections – in particular the repeated shots of water from beautiful soft focus panoramas across the river to bright reflections in the river itself- beautifully filmed underwater shots of Crocodile in particular impress. This provides often poignant symbolism of purity and serenity, the river representing a beacon of hope and redemption which Crocodile and his companions will never be able to attain. For them, the river is life, death, the beginning and the end.
Crocodile is a challenging drama, examining the harsh side of human nature and how people struggle to survive by any means necessary – a key theme of Ki-duk’s subsequent outings. That it tells a harsh story with such imaginative film techniques and striking symbolism makes Crocodile an interesting, engaging, and ultimately very human film. Both directorial debut and feature documentary prove the perfect introductions to the thematic preoccupations of this highly respected South Korean auteur.
Hannah-Jane Albone (CUEAFS)