Removing any pretence of reality for yet another of his existentialist essays on human nature, Kim Ki-Duk's bare-boned new film pairs a married woman with a man on death row, for an impossible love affair. But as this is, after all, Kim Ki-Duk territory, the affair does materialise in a manner of speaking, even offering a deserved relief to two tormented souls, before it drops the curtains.
Kim's followers will embrace this and festivals couldn't possibly miss exposing such a bemusing item, though once again, chances outside the art circuit are practically nil.
Jang Jin (Chang Chen), sentenced to death for a crime that will be revealed only at the very end of the film, attempts to commit suicide in his cell. Yeon (Park Ji-a), a bored housewife whose husband cheats on her (another piece of information only fully disclosed towards the end), sees the news on television and is impulsively drawn to the man. She goes to his jail, claiming to be a former girlfriend and asks to meet him. This is the first in a series of encounters - evidently inspired by Kim's most resounding international success to date, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring - in which the two strangers live through an entire cycle of love unto death. The romance is actually engineered by Kim himself, never seen except as a reflection in the TV monitor. He is the prison director, who first allows the highly improbable meetings to take place, watches them closely through CCTV and then manipulates them by remote control, ringing the ominous bell every time he thinks the couple should be separated.
To underline the seasonal cycle of the affair, every one of Yeon's visits takes on the aspect of another part of the year, though factually, the entire story takes place in winter and heavy snow is falling in the last sequence. This does not bother Yeon, who covers the meeting room first with wallpaper representing blooming flowers; for the next meeting, with landscapes drenched in sunshine; then with an autumnal view of a mountain forest. Each time the two meet she is the only one who talks because his attempted suicide has harmed his vocal chords. Each visit, the voyeuristic director permits the relation to go one step further.
The world outside these brief encounters seems, in a perverted manner, to be identical for both of them. Both are imprisoned: he in his death cell with mates he does not relate to (particularly a young homosexual trying to gain his favours); she is locked in her marriage with a man she cannot abide though she did love him once, living in a soulless, cold and impersonal home (a throwback to some of the homes in Kim's earlier 3-Iron), manufacturing art she will ultimately break into pieces, held there mainly by her love and devotion to her little daughter. Both have their future traced out for them, neither will escape it, but each, after having lived through this relationship, accepts their fate willingly, as the only possible end.
Kim, whose international reputation was based for many years on the excesses he indulged in films like The Isle or Bad Guy, doesn't quite achieve the same heights he climbed in Spring, Summer , but he doesn't need to shock anymore and works wonders within the minimalist conditions he imposes on himself. Almost the entire picture takes place in three locations, Yeon's home, Jang Jin's prison cell and the room in which they meet and which changes appearance every time, its strictly limited confines practically blown away by the lifelike wallpapers and real flowers Yeon carries into it.
With the director's presence constantly in the background, a dimension of Brechtian alienation is never far away, and combined with the various degrees of silence forced on the characters (Yeon never speaks at home), there is always a distance between the screen and the audience. But a remarkable performance by Park Ji-a takes the viewer way beyond the remote appraisal of a theoretical metaphor.
Visually, this is as eye-catching as any of Kim's films, from the muted pastels of Yeon's home, to the stark realism of the prison cell, and down to the brilliantly sharp universe created by Yeon's vivid imagination inside a the prison room. Finally, there is effective use of incidental music, like the mechanical-sounding version of 'Moonlight Sonata' played by Yeon's husband, or the ironically utilised 'Tombe la Neige' which wraps up the entire picture.
Kim Ki-Duk Productions