"Love in Winter"
Published in Korean Quarterly
It is almost difficult to write a review of ADDRESS UNKNOWN because it requires one to reinsert oneself in the miserable company of its alternately unfortunate, pitiful, frustrated, victimized, and demonstratively cruel characters. That's not a qualitative judgment of the film itself, which is handled with a bravura banality and startling savagery, but merely an observation of the tone and texture of the sore and gritty world Kim Ki-duk sets before us.
Kim Ki-duk’s 6th film follows another coupling of society’s downtrodden and reveals the stages in which they perpetuate their own piteous overthrows, as well as deal with the realities of a difficult life spurred on after war, interrupted by occupation. The context of Kim Ki-duk’s dreary and often grisly account of a rural South Korean town bordering an active US army base in 1970, is critical as a contribution, but not as a singular cause, to the misery. 17 years after the armistice of 1953, South Korea finds itself having traded Japanese rule after WWII for an American occupation and continued military presence, yet to substantially find it’s footing and concrete its new north-south binary culture. Despite the centrality of its context, like a good film, ADDRESS UNKNOWN derives dramaturgy from a number of conflicts and conditions. Whittled down though, nearly every strain, every desperate scraping act, every wrenching pitiful submission in ADDRESS UNKNOWN stems from one single force – the desire to be loved.
Whether it is a mother living in a converted bus on the outskirts of town, sending letter after letter in a vain effort to locate her son’s father in the US, or Chang-guk the illegitimate half-black child of her and her former army boyfriend who struggles through racism, poverty, and fatherlessness. Whether it is Eu-nok, the young woman who’s right eye is blinded by her selfish brother with a homemade beebee gun and which garners her ridicule, or Ji-hum the timid near-speechless boy who pines for her, victimized by two miscreant thugs who plague him with violence and theft. Whether it is they, or any of the other characters in this film, the desire is the same.
The presence of the army base is none-the-less felt constantly, with jets and planes flying overhead like punctuations to the unfolding tragedy, English being alternately embraced and despised by locals, and soldiers filtering out into the town on recreation or drills. James, one such troubled American – more troubled than we first realize - injects himself Eu-nok’s family, using her as a cover for his drug abuse and eventually exchanging restorative eye surgery at the military hospital for her becoming his “sweetheart.” James turns out to be at the breaking-point of his sanity, is emotionally fragile, and is at complete odds with being stationed in Korea without any real conviction or understanding of his purpose. It is because of this nuance that Kim’s film is not simplistically critical of America’s post-armistice presence, but rather contains a note of complexity in the attitudes of those men and women stationed at the 38th parallel.
Amidst the sprawl, again, this cast of desperate beings strives for one utterly simple essential attainment…. Love. Love in the form of acknowledgement, acceptance, and tenderness. They hope for nothing more than a future brighter than the consuming bleakness of the winter of 1970.
**Available on Palisades Tartan DVD**