Wednesday, August 31, 2011



It has been three years since Ki-Duk Kim wrote and directed Dream in 2008, his 15th film in as many years. During this hiatus in the filmmaker’s career, it is appropriate to look back and reflect on the transcendent qualities which thread his entire oeuvre, and observe how they manifest essentially in Dream, Kim’s most introspective work. This and other Ki-Duk Kim films have been neglected in the U.S., with the possible exception of Spring Summer Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) and 3-Iron (2005), which both enjoyed some popular and critical success.

Kim’s impending self-retrospective film Arirang, and the other significant works in this artist’s prolific career, describe a filmmaker who creates spaces of silence, secrecy, individuality and alienation. He also shows spaces of rooms and of open air, where characters and the viewer can reflect, relate, and expand the concept of what it is to be human.

Kim’s spaces are both literal and abstract. Literal spaces include the Buddhist temple in the lake-filled valley of Spring, Summer, the aged claustrophobic boat amidst the grey expanse of the sea in The Bow, the many domestic environs in 3-Iron, and the ever-changing prison meeting cell in Breath. Within these literal structures, Kim channels abstract spaces; setting fly desperate states of desire that permeate the physical.

These abstract spaces include the family orbit of Samaritan Girl, in which a daughter’s secret quest for penance unleashes violent unintended consequences. In the everydayness of Time, Kim topples a couple’s sense of physical identity in an increasingly cosmetic society. Most recently, Kim explores a shared sub-conscious space in Dream, in which the lives of two strangers merge in a destructive cycle which is tied to their unresolved pasts.

Kim uses silence successfully in his films to illustrate his understanding of space. In reducing the number of spoken words, Kim amplifies the sense of human vulnerability, desire, frailty, strength, and communicability like no other filmmaker today. His sense of intimacy, enhanced by spare dialogue and periods of silence, provides a fluid exchange of inside and outside, public and private, emotional and physical, cultural and universal. The silent spaces, enabled by his many selectively mute characters, forces us as the audience to begin listening with our eyes.

Into the silence Kim injects casual details about the modern South Korean culture - food, objects, technology, homes, economic status, religion, interactions - which the viewer absorbs as part of the drama. Somehow, these details seem familiar, having been saturated in their human-ness first, and their Korean-ness second. His films exist within and outside of culture, involving individuals who belong, yet are apart. Therefore, even the non-Korean speaking viewer, allowed into the very epicenter of personal downfalls, degradations, grieving, comings of age, etc, never experiences a cultural impasse because spoken language never dominates the telling of the story.

Instead, Kim utilizes film to develop a new language which reflects pure experience. Language becomes visual and sensual, and the viewer comprehends the characters through their courses of action, use of objects, movement of bodies, and eruptions of emotion. This technique lends strength and depth to the characters’ authenticity and impact, and is enhanced by cinematography and editing. The effect is visceral.

Kim ushers his films to the screen at a critical time. We have an increased level of communication due to modern technology, but our connections may only be skin deep. Awash in a discontinuity between the finitude of the physical realm and the seeming infinitude of the digital realm, Kim reminds us again of “pure experience” and “pure language.” Pure language isn’t merely about what it is saying, but is also part of it. It is a totality of expression that comes from the creative centers within each person; this is the part lost to the colloquial trends of social networking. Kim’s characters remind us of this loss as they use their actions to communicate their most basic yearnings and objections.

Kim provides ever more inventive forms of space in the dark existential drama, Dream. The filmmaker also employs silence to express the spreading poison of repressed emotion and the refusal of individuals to reach catharsis. Dream relies less on outright speechlessness, and focuses more on specific things that are left unsaid.

Principal characters Jin (Odagiri Jo) and Ran Lee (Na-yeong Lee) are strangers to one another, but a dire motive entangles them after the peculiar goings on of one evening. To Ran’s surprise, she is awakened by the police in the middle of the night. They inform her that she has caused a car accident. Inspecting her damaged car, she becomes confused and frantic. Jin, having dreamt of himself causing a car accident, investigates upon waking, even so far as following the police and Ran back to the station where she is shown a traffic-cam photo of herself driving.

Seeing the coincidence of details to his dream, Jin is convinced of his culpability. The existential predicament that the two strangers are forced to accept is that when they are asleep at the same time, Ran acts out the motions of Jin’s dreams like a puppet sleepwalker. Jin’s dreams take him ever closer to his former lover whom he consummately longs for, however Ran’s actions while sleepwalking draw her in reality to her own former lover whom she loathes unimaginably. Intrusive and brooding, these dream-driven stages become more and more destructive, but not in the least arbitrary. The yearning on the part of Jin, and seething resentment on the part of Ran reveals itself more and more potently with each occasion. The final piece of the puzzle, a fourth party who is revealed late in the film, completes the mystery of Jin and Ran’s connection.

So it is with Dream that Kim accesses the most primordial experience of language, from the one space he had not yet penetrated; that of the mind. With matter-of-factness Kim presses into the floating realm of the subconscious, and allows it to equally press back through Ran’s sleepwalking. Kim dissolves the contained nature of dreams, just as he dissolves dualities of time (old and new) through his design of Jin and Ran’s alternately traditional and modern dwellings, and questions the singularity of personhood (you apart from me) through the concept of shared identity.

In Dream, Kim resides more directly than ever in the interstices of language. Dream also happens to be comparatively his most talkative film. Jin and Ran unknowingly siphon their emotional overflow into a circuit between their subconscious. Their innermost selves carve out a space in dreams, and instigate sleepwalking as a form of expression. The potential healing of Jin and Ran’s dream-language is compromised by their incongruous attempts to contravene or resist it and its implications; unsuccessfully sleeping in shifts, handcuffing each other together, enacting physically self-destructive acts to remain awake (pricking scalps with needles, slapping, taping eyes open, and eventually leading to more grisly methods).

Jin is a calligraphic engraver who excises words in stone, and Ran a designer/decorator who conceals and veils with vibrant sheer tones. Yet despite their artistic enterprises - which speak volumes about their emotional identities - a new sensual language sparks itself into existence, connects their opposite poles, and renders them into a type of symmetry. As Jin grasps more quickly than Ran, there is no choice in the matter of experiencing the dream-language, just as there is no choice in what one feels or desires. Their only choice is whether to participate with it or against its currents, and to resolve what it highlights of their states of being. Because this central language of Dream operates in the realm of impulse and instinct, Dream distills questions about the nature of personhood and being human.

Some circles suggest that the designation of personhood has partly to do with our understanding the difference between action and intentionality, as much as it has to do with our understanding of abstraction apart from actuality. Therefore in Dream, as Kim poses language as an instinctual event with all its inherent qualities of abstraction, one wonders about how much the “intentionality” of language and abstraction can be used strictly to assign personhood.

What is most interesting about Dream is not the scenario itself, nor the plain-faced gravity Kim lends to such ethereal subject matter. It is the use of two different languages. Kim has Jin (Odagiri Jo), speak his native Japanese, and Ran (as well as every other character) played by actress Na-yeong Lee, speak Korean, however no one draws attention to this use of two languages. In words and in silence, in Korean and Japanese, in waking and in dreaming, Kim renders the phenomenon of speech as a human behavior, universal rather than cultural.

The multi-lingual aspect of DREAM must be all the more glaring, and perhaps all the more effective for a Korean speaking viewer as they would be most notably confronted by Jin’s Japanese dialogue; being most frontally aware that he is speaking a language apart from their own and the other characters. For a viewer that speaks neither Japanese nor Korean, the divergence is somewhat lost, due to the fact that one is already entirely dependent on translation and faces a summary distance from all the spoken dialogue.

Jin and Ran share dialogues, respond to one another and comprehend each other’s words, but the escalating strain that stems from their unique relationship makes one wonder; do they truly understand one another? Are they listening fully? Is the irony true; that unless you share the same language, you cannot hear the silence? Jin and Ran may not share the same language in tongues, but they are led to do so in mind. For that reason, Jin and Ran are connected more deeply and more inextricably than anyone in Kim’s entire oeuvre.

The two of them shatter the encapsulation of dreams - first by sharing them, and second by enacting them in reality. Just as “black and white are the same color,” as the healer woman tells them, dream and waking are the same state. As the terms of their new reality reach a feverpitch of violence, Jin and Ran are able to hear and to heed the silence as they color the climax of their unification with a shade of red and a stroke of acquiescence.

With Dream as the tipping point, Kim crafts a filmic description of how language is larger than mere words. He expresses this description through the most coalescent artistic language – that of cinema - how very innate, irrepressible, and inevitable the impulse and manifestation of language itself is. It is as natural as dreaming.

**a version of this essay appears in KOREAN QUARTERLY Summer 2011**

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