Kim Ki-duk has long been considered by Western audiences as l’enfant terrible of Korean cinema, poetically plumbing the depths of human nature’s darkest recesses throughout his career. His films have often been built on contorted foundations of sex and violence and, in recent output such as his Golden Lion-winning Pieta (2012), allegorically imbued with wider discourse. One on One (2014), is the centrepiece of the London Korean Film Festival’s director’s strand and sees Kim forgo subtly in favour of explicit engagement with his country’s social dynamics. However, despite boasting some intriguing ideas this is far from the Korean provocateur at the height of his gruesome powers.
Kim’s last film, Moebius (2013), was a gloriously twisted family tragedy that cackled with delight at taboo subjects like incest and castration. Delving into horrifying themes and employing guttural grunts in place of words, he tackled the torment with a characteristic and undeniably provocative flourish. Now, with One on One Kim has turned his eye to a far more overt drama, over-flowing with a mixed bag of broad but rather blunt political commentary. Taking a senseless murder as its inciting incident, the plot follows seven vigilantes as they seek vengeance upon the seven men responsible. With well over a dozen characters thrown into the mix, representing various degrees of privilege and poverty, this is a more muddled, and narratively inert affair than one would expect from such a singular mind.
The plot follows our would-be jurors as they endeavour to elicit confessions from various bad guys, working their way progressively up the food chain with increasingly drastic measures. Inherent in this are deep criticisms of the wealth divide, but equally in Kim’s crosshairs are those striving to leap it. The men guilty of the initial crime are deplored, but equally weighed and found wanting are the self-professed avengers. Condemnation flows at their personal lust for status and material validation in the purchasing of knock-off jewellery; traces are evident of the apathy to injustice that permeates the society around them; or even their infantile clamour to vary their fancy dress costumes while they mete out punishment.
Standing within the eye of the storm is their explosive chief (Ma Dong-seok) who drives their unexplained thirst for retribution and orchestrates events despite being somewhat adrift, personally. He is arguably a cypher for Kim himself, particularly given an otherwise unrelated closing caption that asks “Who am I?” In amongst the political rumination, this certainly feels like another in a long line of films aimed at self-exploration for the director, as well as national diagnosis. Although the production design is a little slicker than his last few films, One on One feels like more of a rushed affair. Though interesting ideas are present they are never properly interrogated while the scenes of coercion are monotonous, and even if the repetition is half the point they also lack the élan that Kim usually offers. You want his misanthropy to be strikingly cinematic, thematically urgent, or accompanied by a hint of a wink or lop-sided grin, unfortunately, despite much going on on the periphery, One on One is ultimately dour and unmoving.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson