Tag Archives: Terracotta Film Festival

Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013)






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.




The King of Pigs (돼지의 왕, Yeun Sang-ho: 2011)

Besides Japanese anime, The King of Pigs is the first full-length adult animation that I have seen. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a dark, demented and nihilistic vision of class and social relations in contemporary South Korea that grips from the opening shot to the final bleak shot of the concrete city. This is no dystopian imagining of a future yet to come, but rather a confrontation with the present as fully imbricated with the past and a condemnation of the brutality beget by social disfranchisement and economic failure in a society that privileges success and wealth above all else.

The King of Pigs starts with a slow panning shot of the broken body of a dead woman slumping over at the kitchen table – the brutal aftermath of a violent domestic murder by Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se), whose company has just gone under and who has lost everything – visually signified by the stickers on the apartment’s furniture and appliances. In The King of Pigs, violence is always perpetrated against those lower in the social pecking order:  The rich against the poor, men against women and humans against animals who represent the lowest rung on the ladder and the most vulnerable.  Financially and morally bankrupt, Kyung-min seeks out his old school friend, Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june) in order to talk about their past and the events that led to 15 years of silence.  In their middle school years, both Kyung-min and Jong-suk were classed as outsiders as a result of their lowly social class, called ‘Pigs’ by the privileged and wealthy in-group  who were known as the ‘Dogs’. One day, a new student, Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na) transfers in and offers the ‘Pigs’ a way to combat the brutality of the Dogs.  Yet the solution is as violent as the problem, with Chul, in a chillingly disturbing scene, stabbing a cat to death and encouraging the others to join in. Chul becomes ‘The King of the Pigs’, and encourages the others to take revenge against the other boys in the class. There is no redemption possible from this degeneration into primitive violence as signaled by Chul’s death at the hands of Kyung-min just as Chul is attempting to rebuild his life after his father’s death. Brutality begets brutality, violence leads to more violence, and the past is resolved in the present with another senseless death.

Critics have noted the similarity in theme with other texts about disaffected youth including William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Yet despite similarities, The King of Pigs is distinctively Korean and belongs to the socio-economic context in which it was produced as does Lord of the Flies. While the competitiveness of the South Korean education system has produced many horror films, together known as School Horror, starting with Whispering Corridors/여고괴담 (Park Ki-Hyeong) in 1998, it has mainly focused on the female experience and films tend to be set in single-sex girls’ schools – for example Roommates/ 어느날 갑자기 세번째 이야기, directed by Eun-kyeong Kim (the 3rd in the ‘Four Horror Tales’ series, 2006) which is set in a crammer school for girls who have not achieved the necessary grades to succeed in either obtaining work or continuing in education. However, in content and theme The King of Pigs bears more resemblance to the narrative of    male brutality and disaffection of A Bloody Aria (구타유발자들; Won Shin-yeon: 2006) than female-orientated School Horror.

The King of Pigs touches on social inequality in South Korean society, an inequality which was predicated by the suffering of the working classes in the building of modern South Korea’s economic miracle. Further the film comments on the rise of domestic violence as a consequence of male disenfranchisement – something which has been noted in recent studies about the correlation between male unemployment and violence within the home. In an unequal society, oppression against those weaker, marginalized and ostracized flourishes – a reassertion of lost potency is gained through the activity of aggression. Jong-suk’s voice-over with which the film ends stresses the moral bankruptcy of late capitalism which is predicated on the survival of the fittest and which has no empathy for those who it sees as valueless and therefore as not fully human: “Where I am is the place that is covered by cold asphalt as ice and by bodies colder that it: it’s called the World.”

The King of Pigs is a gripping piece of contemporary cinema, beautifully animated with an almost photorealistic touch punctured with moments of surrealistic brilliance, and is without doubt one of the best films that I have seen this year.

The King of Pigs will be available on DVD next year, and is distributed in the UK through Terracotta Distribution who specialize in bringing cinematic gems from East and South East Asia to the UK. It is available to pre-order from Amazon:

King of Pigs DVD

My Way (마이웨이: Kang Je-Kyu, South Korea: 2011)

My Way (마이웨이) is Director Kang’s follow up to his successful 2004 Brotherhood: Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며) award winning and box office record breaking epic – with more than 10 million box office admissions – about the impact on the Korean War on two brothers, who end up fighting for different sides during the brutal conflict. While Brotherhood: Taegukgi is inward looking – concerned with internal divisions and conflict – My Way is outward looking, taking as its inspiration a ‘true story’ of a Korean Soldier, Yang Kyoungjong, who is said to have fought for the Kwantung army in 1938 before being captured first by the Soviet Army and then by the German Army. Purportedly he was eventually captured by the US army during the invasion of Normandy  and ended up in a POW in Britain before being released in 1945 (see ‘Going My Way with KANG Je-kyu ‘ in Korean Cinema Today, Kang Byeong-jin [ available at <http://koreanfilm.or.kr/webzine/sub/feature.jsp?mode=A_VIEW&wbSeq=41>] for further details). While some critics have questioned the ‘veracity’ of the story on which My Way is based, Director Kang’s most ambitious and South Korea’s most expensive film to date is a ultimately tragic tale of the fate of ordinary soldiers (whether they are Korean, Japanese, German or Russian), who are caught up in a brutal conflict beyond their understanding and who risk losing their humanity in the fight for survival.

My Way’s starry cast includes the popular South Korean actor JANG Dong-gun as KIM Joon-Sik, ODARGIRI Joe, one of Japan’s most famous actors, as HASEGAWA Tatsuo, and noted Chinese actress and singer BINGBING Fan.  However it must be noted that Fan Bingbing is underused in her role as Shirai, a Chinese Solider and sharpshooter who helps Joon-Sik escape from the Japanese Army, and ends up dead for her efforts. Bingbing sparkles briefly but is too soon extinguished to have any real impact in a film that it concerned about [military] masculinity and identity. This is all too true of War films, unless they are concerned with woman’s domestic struggle or valiant efforts on the home front.

Like Director Kang’s Brotherhood, My Way mainly focuses in on the relationship between two men who end up on opposite sides of a conflict. Joon-Sik and Tatsuo become childhood friends when Tatsuo’s family moves to Seoul (Gyeongseong) where his grandfather is a high ranking official in the Japanese Colonial Army in 1928. Their friendship is based upon a common interest in Marathon running, an interest which will be divisive in a later years when both compete to be included in the Olympic team: a race which Joon-Sik wins but is disqualified in order that Tatsuo can take the place in the team.  This ‘unfair’ decision directly leads to Joon-Sik being conscripted into the Japanese Army where he is forced to fit alongside the determined Tatsuo, for whom sacrifice in the name of the Emperor is the true sign of a man, and leads a suicidal charge against the Mongolian Army, before being captured and forced to fight for the Russians alongside his friend and competitor, Joon-Sik.

The film’s panoramic scope from South Korea, to the icy expanses of Siberia and the beaches of Normandy, offers a snapshot of the killing fields of World War 2 that is never less than impressive, managing to be both horrific and beautiful at the same time.  Eschewing military jingoism, My Way is concerned with the day to day life of ordinary soldiers, who are the literal embodiment of the vagaries of War for whom which political ideology and economic ambition means little beyond the human instinct for survival.

The fact that My Way has not performed particularly well to date at either the South Korea or Japanese box offices, especially compared to Brotherhood, attests to the fact that the historical conflict between Japan and South Korea is still a raw sore in the national imaginary of both countries. In addition, My Way is silent about the plight of woman, especially the ‘comfort’ woman – Korean military prostitutes –whose stories are one of the true horrors of the conflict between Japan and Korea. However, irrespective of this, Director Kang’s film is a cinematic tour-de-force and unmissable.

If you live in the UK, My Way is the opening film of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, on 12th April 2011, at 20:30 pm, which takes place at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s Leicester Square.

Details on the Festival and how to book are available here: