Director’s edgy vision finally gets acceptanceThe employees of ShowEast, a Korean movie production company, were getting in a cab after checking out from a hotel in Berlin on Friday, a day before the closing night of the 54th Berlin International Film festival.
The ShowEast employees, who had submitted director Kim Ki-duk’s latest release, “Samaria,” to the film festival, were busy trying to catch a flight back to Seoul when they received a call from the festival. Mr. Kim had won the festival’s Silver Bear for best director and his presence was needed on Saturday for the awards ceremony.
For a moment, silence fell upon the group as they looked at each other with astonishment. Nobody had expected an award, much less the best director award ― not even the chairman of the Korean Film Commission, Lee Choong-jik, who was in Berlin for the festival.
After receiving news of Mr. Kim’s achievement, Mr. Lee said, “You must be joking.”
At the time of the call, Mr. Kim was in France promoting another film, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring,” which is scheduled to open next month there. He had showed up earlier during the festival and wasn’t expecting to return to Berlin. He was planning to fly back to Seoul after spending some time in France.
However, upon hearing the news, Mr. Kim packed his belongings and took off for Berlin.
When stepping on stage to receive the Silver Bear, the first for a Korean director, Mr. Kim said, “Never in my dreams have I imagined receiving such a huge award.”
Many nominations, few awards
Mr. Kim’s films have received frequent nominations at international film festivals, including those in Cannes, Venice and Busan. In Korean film circles, however, he’s been considered a heathen ever since he made his debut in 1996 with the movie “Crocodile,” about a man who collects bodies of suicide victims along the Han River.
The subjects Mr. Kim chooses for his films are so far from the mainstream that they rarely gain much support from Korean audiences. All his movies depict the desperate struggles of the outcasts and underprivileged of Korean society, as well as obscured love and hateful relations. Many of his films involve controversial violence and abuse.
“Birdcage,” in 1998, was the first movie that brought Mr. Kim into the international spotlight, and “The Isle,” in 2000, cemented Mr. Kim’s reputation as it stunned audiences at the Sundance and Venice film festivals for its violent portrayal of a love-hate relationship between a man and a woman.
A ‘religious’ film
Mr. Kim continues the disturbing themes in “Samaria,” in which two high school senior girls have sex with older men to collect money for their trip to Europe.
“This is a religious movie,” he said. “Any human being can make a mistake and commit sins, but it is not our place for us to condemn. All we need to do is forgive and understand, and this is the main theme of ‘Samaria.’”
Mr. Kim’s philosophy is that everyone is born on the same footing. Rank and social categories are formed as people age, but he firmly believes that all men are equal despite titles, and they should be treated with the same respect regardless of their social status.
Winning popularity contests has never been one of Mr. Kim’s strong points, nor does he care about succeeding commercially. Instead, he would rather make films according to his vision.
Over the past eight years, Mr. Kim has created 10 films, but all have done poorly in Korea, with fewer than 100,000 viewers per movie on average.
“Bad Guy,” in 2001, and “The Coast Guard,” in 2002, are the biggest commercial hits he has had, drawing 700,000 and 400,000 viewers, respectively, in Korea. But critics attributed those films’ relative success to the wide popularity of lead actors Joa Jae-hyeon and Jang Dong-kun.
Even though Mr. Kim’s graphic scenes and sometimes questionable taste have offended Korean audiences, he has a cult following overseas, especially in Europe.
Mr. Kim is known as something of a guerrilla filmmaker, famous for churning out more than one movie a year on budgets that never exceed 1 billion won ($864,000) and completing a film in fewer than 20 takes. “Real Fiction,” made in 2000, was shot in 200 nonstop minutes.
“Samaria” cost only 500 million won and was finished in 11 days.
Like his movies, Mr. Kim has lived the life of an outsider, with little formal education. His education came from life experience, not textbooks.
After graduating from elementary school, Mr. Kim’s father, who thought there was nothing much to learn from the institutionalized educational system, had Mr. Kim trained to become a master mechanic.
Mr. Kim, who worked most of his life at factories, served his military duties in the Korean marines. After being discharged, Mr. Kim went to France to study.
However, he spent most of his three years there looking at faraway places and painting the sea while living on the southern coast of France.
A class starts a career
It was at this point in life that Mr. Kim discovered his passion for film, when he signed up for a scriptwriting class in Korea. He started directing after he won a scenario contest held by the Korean Film Commission.
When Mr. Kim was asked why he left early, the Korean director said he thought he had no chance against French director Eric Rohmer, British film director Ken Loach and Greek director Teo Angelopoulos, for whom Mr. Kim personally has deep respect.
Additionally, Mr. Kim said that in the past when one of his films was nominated in an international film festival, he would wait with high hopes, only to be disappointed repeatedly. None of his movies, until now, has won anything in the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals.
Now that he has a major award for directing, Mr. Kim said he has no intention of changing his style.
“Awards are like lightning, in that they come and go without a trace. There is no reason for me to change suddenly just because I won a major award,” Mr. Kim said.
The Korean director confessed he has recently thought about retiring because he felt exhausted every time he was directing a film, with most of the problems stemming from finding financial support.
But the Silver Bear award has given him renewed strength and encouragement to work on his next project, which is titled “Yuri,” meaning “glass.” The film is about Korean children adopted by European families.
French and German movie production companies have offered to finance Mr. Kim’s film, but the Korean director said he hasn’t made any decisions yet.
On the state of the Korean film industry, Mr. Kim thinks the issue of a monopoly is serious. “Because only a few types of movies dominate the film market, small movies like mine have difficulties surviving,” he said.
He said Korean audiences should show more interest in films that tackle new forms and themes.
Before walking off the stage in Berlin, Mr. Kim was asked how much he received for the director’s award.
“I could probably get a little profit if I melt this trophy made out of silver,” he said.
by Lee Young-ki