Meet the people shaping life and culture in Asia. More from The Moment
For South Korea, Kim Ki-duk presents a dilemma. The internationally acclaimed director is one of the country’s best-known filmmakers. His films have collected a host of awards at some of the world’s most prominent festivals, including the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival for “Pieta.”
But his work often finds a warmer reception abroad than at home. Mr. Kim, whose other films include “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” (2003) and “3-Iron” (2004), has hardly been a box-office darling—or even the critics’ favorite—in South Korea. (He once threatened to stop releasing his films in the country.) He is known for courting controversial subjects. His latest film, “Moebius,” offers a stark example.
The film—which is devoid of dialogue—follows an adulterous husband, his vengeful wife, their teenage son and the woman whose relationship with the husband puts the story in motion.
Mr. Kim spoke to the Journal during last week’s Busan International Film Festival, where “Moebius” screened, about his motivation for making the film, his unorthodox upbringing, and his thoughts on South Korean cinema and his place in it. Edited excerpts:With its portrayals of incest, castration and sadomasochistic acts, “Moebius” was effectively banned from South Korean theaters until Mr. Kim bowed to censors and cut three minutes from it over the summer. That editing—a process he likened to taking a dagger to his heart—allowed “Moebius” to be released last month with an adult-only rating.
What are the differences in the edited version of “Moebius” compared with the original cut? [The original was shown only at its September premiere in Venice.]
From my perspective, the Venice cut explains the story better. In the edited version, it feels like the flow is abruptly cut. The drama feels more cluttered. The important scenes are left out. Even from an objective view, there is a difference.
How do you compare reactions to the film among different international audiences?
The audiences at Venice and Toronto [where it screened after Venice] were laughing more. In Venice, they were clapping. They seemed to take it with some humor. In Korea, they mostly appear to have a heavier view, with some exceptions, of course. Koreans say it’s an extreme film that defies ethics and unsettles the norms. On the other hand, in Europe or in Canada, people say it’s a brave attempt to break those taboos.
Why do you think the reaction in South Korea has been especially negative?
In [modern] Korean history, the economy came first—we had to feed ourselves. Culture came next. I think now is a transitional period that follows the realization that culture is important. In that sense, Japan is more liberal, at least when it comes to censorship. China, on the other hand, is stricter than we are.
I think it’s a process that each country experiences. Once we aren’t hungry, we look at culture, which was neglected. I believe the “Moebius” incident happened as a part of this process. Another problem is the fundamental view that it’s harmful to minors—that our children will imitate the violence and sex portrayed in the film.
The [censorship] measure is supposed to prevent copycat behavior. I see that as inevitable. In a society that values the interest of all over the individual’s, you need agreement. To be sure, the majority of Koreans [in a poll conducted during the ratings controversy] said they were opposed to the film’s release to minors. The conventional view is that my film is ethically dangerous. Overcoming that will take time and effort.
For your recent works, you are tackling issues such as greed and sexual desire. Are you inspired by what’s happening around you in South Korea?
It’s not a problem exclusive to Korea. The world is facing two problems: money and sex. “Moebius” is about the latter and “Pieta” the former. South Korea has become a wealthy country where the best electronics gadgets are produced. It’s a society where the concept of the best keeps getting redefined. The problem with this growth is that there are people being left behind. Money has become the solution—the key to all happiness. That’s quite dangerous. Korean society is becoming a place where winning victory through cheating or corruption is prized.
These two facets of Korean society have given birth to incidents and contradictions. Korea has many problems regarding sex. This is because we don’t engage in an open discussion. Koreans treat it as a simple desire that should be repressed.Sex is an issue that we must stay attentive to, but [Korean] society is only saying no or saying it’s dangerous—without exploring its boundaries. It’s enforcing a moral standard. That’s why “Moebius” was restricted. Once we find out all of the secrets behind sex, we can then judge them to be dangerous. [Korean] society just blocks access. The difference is pronounced when compared with Europe or others.
Is money the best? Is sex obscene? I think it’s high time for us to look at them directly.
How does your background influence your work?
During my youth, I was mostly working at a factory rather than attending school. At a time when I should have been at school, I was doing manual labor. I saw myself inferior to those people with more schooling, but also I had a philosophy lesson at work that couldn’t be learned in a classroom. I think this pair of strength and weakness was instilled in me.
For a child it must have been a lot of stress, but in the end it’s an important groundwork for my films. The poverty during childhood, the factory work from age 15, the physical exercises in the marines when I was 20 and going to France for a nomadic life at 30—all of these experiences gave me a chance to see diverse people and stories to use as raw materials for my films. In that sense, I love my life.
Is it fair to call you a leader of South Korean cinema?
I don’t think I should be the one calling myself that, but I think we can put it this way: The major film companies in Korea own the distribution, the theaters and the money. What gets sacrificed most in that structure is the value of cinema, a real noncommercialized cinema. In other words, it’s like the pigs that are raised on a farm compared with those wandering in the mountains.
I feel films are losing value today. I want at least for myself and my students to be free of money’s pressure and keep it that way. If I have a role, it’s this one.