When a mother (Lee Eun-woo) discovers her husband’s (Cho Jae-hyun) infidelity with a beautiful and younger woman, she takes a violent revenge on her wayward husband, by first attempting to castrate him with a butcher’s knife, and when he throws her off, completing the said castration on their teenager son (Seo Young-ju). So begins an Operatic and Oedipal journey into the fractured spaces of the contemporary family, during which the father ‘donates’ his own organ to his son (but not before searching on the internet for alternative ways to orgasm), his son is bullied and then becomes an unwitting participant in the group rape of a beautiful woman who works at the local store (also played by Lee Eun-woo) before teaming up with her to mete out appropriate revenge on her attackers, before ending as unhappily and even more brutally then it began.
Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is in short a film about castration, both literally and psychological, and as such, is an uncomfortable viewing experience. It is at the same time, one of the most blackly humorous film of Kim Ki-duk’s I have seen to date. From the moment the mother cuts of her son’s penis and eats it, therefore severing any possibility that it might be re-attached in the future, to the rather inventive onscreen substitutions for sex that I have seen in a long time (perhaps in order to get around the censor’s scissors), Moebius is as funny as it is violent. In fact, I would argue that Moebius, is a tragi-comedy, and while a particularly brutal one, and should not be consigned to the ‘extreme’ moniker that some Western critics use as an umbrella term to implicitly critique Kim Ki-duk’s films.
Kim Ki-duk, who I consider one of contemporary cinema’s finest auteurs (and I do not use the overused term ‘auteur’ lightly here), should be an inspiration to any aspiring director even if they choose not to plumb the depths of human depravity and indifference, or construct cinematic commentaries on the human condition, as to demonstrating the possibilities (and liberations) offered by low-budget filmmaking. Shot in one week (that is right – a whole week), Moebius deals with what can best be expressed as the ‘human condition’: in other words the messiness, pain and love that defines our relationships with each other. The family here, as elsewhere in Kim Ki-duk’s work, is the very epitome of such relations: relations which are always on the verge of imploding. Of course, Moebius takes the concept of the family to Grand Guignol proportions and the implosion becomes an explosion of incestuous desires and sexual violence. The fact that the wonderful Lee Eun-woo plays both central female roles, situates a Freudian framework of interpretation (whether intentional or not) demonstrating that if oedipal desires are not repressed then the civilization itself would be threatened with total destruction (Freud argues that the incest taboo is crucial to the formation of ‘civilized’ society in Totem and Taboo). If the family as a unit is interpreted as an ideological signifier of the dominant ideology (heterosexuality, patriarchy, nationality) then the destruction of the family is a necessary proviso of emancipation, and the Oedipal drama takes on its implicit political critique of the status-quo.
Kim Ki-duk’s cinematic flair is apparent here, as always. His ability to use props and costume to decorate the mise-en-scene to create a richer looking cinematic canvas than low-budget filmmaking would normally allow -can be seen in the carefully composed contours of the small cloistered spaces that most of the actions occurs in. In addition, his signature dismissal of the centrality of dialogue to the cinematic narrative is taken to the limits here, as there is no dialogue, and besides only use of extra-diegetic music is when the camera follows the mother walking down an eerily deserted high street, Moebius is silent, with the only sounds being those emerging from the body-in-pain or the body-in-desire (both of which are substitutable here). Some critics have argued that the lack of dialogue is a cynical ploy on the part of Kim Ki-duk to make his films more ‘global’ and therefore more attractive to the Western marketplace, but this is a feature of Kim Ki-duk’s oeuvre, long before he was feted on the festival circuit and his films became more popular outside rather than inside South Korea, so it seems rather nonsensical to me. I have written about how Kim Ki-duk manages to capture the attention of the viewer without using typical cinematic conventions of dialogue or action in relation to my review of his documentary Airirang which I named as film of the year in Directory of World Cinema: South Korea (Intellect: 2013). And it is the same with Moebius, the lack of dialogue- or need to ‘explain’ the narrative – means that imagistic language which surrounds and captures the performances of the actors is riveting in and of itself: here the viewer is asked to construct the meaning of the narrative rather than as traditionally being manipulated by the camera, editing and narration, into acquiescing with the dominant (and often reactionary) ideological meaning of cinema which repeats the dominant narrative of the nation and the state. Indeed, like in the work of the French comic book artist, Jean Giraud, who used the pseudonym of Moebius for his epic fantasy, Arzach (which first appeared in 1974), in which there were no dialogue or sound bubbles – and is possibly an influence on Kim Ki-duk particularly remembering that Kim Ki-duk started his career as an artist based in France – the pictorial image is used to generate meaning by itself, and thus challenges the formal conventions of the relation between image and text, in which the image’s meaning is anchored through dialogue and/or other textual cues. As such the use of silence, like the shattering of the familial unit, can be seen as providing a critique of the dominant ideology through which individuals are interpellated into appropriate positions dictated by those in power.
While the performances of Cho Jae-hyun (a Kim Ki-duk regular) and Lee Eun-woo are great, it is the youngest member of the cast, Seo Young-ju (15 at the time of the shooting),who stands out. Having not seen any of his work before – he has been acting since he was 10 in K-drama (South Korean Television Dramas) – I was extremely impressed by what a mature performance, in a difficult role for someone of his age, that Young-ju gave. In a group interview, organised by Terracotta Distribution, Young-ju told us that it was his (award-winning) role in Juvenile Offender (Bumjoe Sonyeon, dir. Kang Yi-kwan, 2012) that led to Kim Ki-duk sending him the script for Moebius, and it shows an emotional maturity that even though Young-ju, as he freely admitted, did not understand the plot – but then, who does understand a plot of a Kim Ki-duk film? – accepted the role despite Kim Ki-duk’s reputation as a director of controversial and challenging cinema. In fact, it seemed that this reputation was what made Young-ju accept the role. He told us that he wanted to play similar roles in the future, ones that involved difficult and dark emotions in order to evolve as an actor. In Moebius, Young-ju -despite his protestations in the interview that he could have done better – embodies a range of emotions, from vulnerability, to anger, hate, [forbidden] desire, captured through a performativity which is always authentic, in a manner that is far beyond his years. The shame when he discovers that the only way that his father’s supplanted penis will inflame with desire is through the presence of his mother and his mortification and eventual self-castration, like his performance throughout the film, is finely judged and never once becomes unbelievable. Without Young-ju’s strong central performance, Moebius would have the visceral and intellectual intensity that it has – which is, of course, why Kim Ki-duk sent Young-ju the script in the first place. Without doubt, Young-ju Seo is an actor who on the basis of this will go from strength to strength in the future.
For me, Kim Ki-duk never disappoints, and Moebius is a riveting piece of art cinema at the hands of one of the most innovative and interesting directors of contemporary times and as such, not to be missed.
Thanks to Joey Terracotta and Terracotta distribution for arranging the group interview with Young-ju Seo, during the Terracotta Film Festival 2014. and to Young-ju Seo for being so generous with his time.