Dir. Kim Ki-Duk. South Korea. 2001. 101mins.

Certainly one of the most provocative filmmakers around, Korea's Kim Ki-Duk seems to be also one of the most prolific. After two consecutive years in Venice (The Isle in 2000 and Address Unknown in 2001) here he is in the Berlinale race, as unsettling, irritating and disturbing as ever. Definitely the kind of stuff to excite festivals and eventually arthouses, but a hard sell out of specialised frames, Bad Guy (which was first unveiled last November in Pusan), is bound to again polarise opinions. Cheerleaders will admire his unflinching social, sexual and emotional observations on human conduct at its worst and the depth of perversity to be reached on the way to true love. Detractors will claim, as they have done in the past, that it is all a sham and that Kim Ki-Duk is simply collecting eccentric obscenities for their shock value and then peddling them under the guise of perceptive, socially conscious art.

Obsessed by the viciousness of people living under inhuman social conditions and by violent passions born out of unsatisfied lust, Kim Ki-Duk pulls no punches in his new urban opus. Hang Gi (Cho Jae-Hyun), a tough pimp ruling with an iron fist over a house of ill repute in the heart of the red light district, walks around with a huge chip on his shoulder and seems bent on revenge against the entire world. Barely two minutes into the film, he grabs a pretty, prim and self-confident looking student waiting on a public bench for her boyfriend, Sun Hwa (Seo Won), plants a brutal kiss on her lips and won't let go of her until passers-by are alerted by her loud shrieks. As he is struggling to free himself from the crowd holding him back, she spits disdainfully in his face to mark her disgust: by doing so signs her downfall.

Following her around, Hang Gi then catches her in a store tearing a page from a book of Egon Schiele reproductions. Soon he has ensured that she is caught red-handed and that she is blackmailed in a quick succession of events until she has no other alternative but to work as a prostitute in the brothel he supervises. All this time, he remains in the shadow, watching her through one-way mirror as she is gradually browbeaten into servicing her clients. Humiliation is of the essence here: the presumptuous Sun Hwa has to be dragged off her pedestal and forced to accept she is no better than any other hooker on the beat. She is spared nothing in the process, her resistance worn down by beatings and threats, while her nemesis watches from the dark, in a turmoil of love-hate passion, as she spirals down into the kind of world she never knew existed.

A twisted, tortured love story if there ever was one, this is the kind of feature where neither one of the two protagonists will ever mention that four-letter word, for love is the kind of weakness they refuse to concede. There are glimpses of compassion, of feeling and even a twisted kind of affection but they are deeply buried in the squalid slice of life Kim Ki-Duk chooses to portray. He certainly makes his point in a film that is better focused and more cogently told than his earlier work. However, one problem remains unsolved. Having looped the loop after 90 minutes, Kim Ki-Duk could have had a perfect ending there. But eager to deliver his message in full, he ads one more sequence, which fails to integrate dramatically and partially spoils the effect.

Although twice as expensive as any of his previous films, Kim Ki-Duk's main concern here is not to make a handsome picture but, on the contrary, to stress its cheap, low-life nature. On these terms, to say it is neither a pretty nor a pleasant film to look at should be taken as a compliment. Supported by the remarkable lead performance of Cho Jae-Hyun, who manages to convey anger and longing, affection and pain, all in the same glance, Bad Guy seems ideally suited to generate arguments and contrasting opinions. No film festival can ask for more.

Prod co: LJ Films Production
S Kor dist: CJ Entertainment
Int'l sales: CJ Entertainment
Prod: Lee Seung-Jae
Scr: Kim Ki-Duk
Cinematography: Huang Chul-Hyun
Art dir: Kim Sun-Ju
Ed: Ham Sung-Won
Music: Park Ho-Jun
Cast: Cho Jae-Hyun, Seo Won, Kim Yoon-Tae, Choi Duk-Moon, Choi Yoo