Dir/scr/cine: Kim Ki-duk. Korea, 2016. 114 min

The Net

Korea’s enfant terrible is yet again rubbing his countrymen up the wrong way. If they believe in the system they live under, they are bound to be irritated by Kim Ki-duk’s new film, whether they be from the North or South, capitalists or communists. And while liberal audiences may agree with everything the film preaches, they may be less than satisfied with the way it is executed. Kim’s name will carry some weight with festivals, but elsewhere it might be an uphill struggle.

A few cuts might have helped The Net look less like a lecture

The Net is far milder than Kim’s Golden Lion winner Pieta and some of the shocking morality lessons the director has delivered in the past, but is also much less subtle and reflective than his masterful Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. Its guiding concept - that a simple man is like a helpless fish caught in the net of the fanatic ideologies ruling the world - says all the right things, but this time it seems the message was deemed to be far too important to pay the necessary attention to the manner in which it is delivered.

A poor North Korean fisherman, Chul-woo (Ryu Seung-bum), goes out to sea, but his engine becomes caught in his own nets and he finds himself drifting into South Korean waters. Handed to the secret service there, he is subjected to stiff questioning, with one particularly nasty investigator (Kim Young-min), persuaded that any infiltrator from the North is a potential spy and should be treated as such.

But since the media has already revealed some of the more objectionable methods used to extract confessions from innocent people in the past, the investigator is hamstrung by his superiors. Chool-woo’s angry and insistent attempts to explain that he never meant to cross the border, that he loves his country and there is nothing more important for him in life than his wife and his little daughter, fall on deaf ears. But lacking the necessary evidence to prosecute him, and with at least one person firmly believing in his innocence, Chul-woo is finally allowed to go home after an attempt is made to convince him to spy for the South.

Once back, officially feted by the North Korean media as the “kidnapped victim returning home”, the communist security has a go at him, turning out to be, predictably enough, as suspicious, brutal and fiercely determined to break down their prisoners as their counterparts on the other side of the border.

Having accustomed his adepts to some of the most unexpected, brutal means of expression, this time Kim seems almost mellow in comparison. His intentions are clear from the very first moment, and repeated time and again.  The plot is manipulative, the characters are never allowed any real depth, with simplistic political indoctrination being the only motivation for most.

The use of readymade political nationalistic propaganda formulas in the South and the official slogans plastered all over the North are practically parodic in their prolific use. Two outbursts of ferocious nationalism on each side, both of them equally fascist, though generated by diametrically opposed political positions, serve as a reminder that the absurdity of the Korean circumstance is not necessarily that different from the poisonous ideological eruptions of hate exploding all over the rest of the world.

The film’s message is clearly trumpeted from its early stages, and while its cast’s dedicated performances sustaining its single-minded intentions, a few cuts might have helped to make it look less like a lecture. This is particularly true in the case of the script’s more naïve interludes, one which introduces a prostitute as the ultimate proof of capitalistic bankruptcy, the other showing a pack of American dollars fished out from a toilet as the equal proof of communist corruption. Both would have been better left on the editing room floor.

Production companies: A Kim Ki-duk Production.

Produced by Kim Soon-mo

Sales: Finecut (yjsuh@fincey.co.kr)

Editing: Park Min-sun

Production design: An Ji-hye

Music: Park Young-min

Cast:  Ryoo Seung-bum, Lee Won-gun, Kim Young-min, Choi Gai-bwa