In praise of Kim Ki-duk’s dreamKorean director Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” with its brutal plot of a loan shark who cripples those who can’t pay up and then seeks salvation through a woman claiming to be his mother, scooped up the Golden Lion for best film at the 69th Venice Film Festival over the weekend. This year is the first time that a Korean motion picture has collected a top prize from the major international film competitions in Venice, Cannes and Berlin.
This achievement is honorable not just for Kim and his colleagues, but for the Korean cinema industry as a whole. It has reached a peak in its 100-year history.
Kim’s personal history combined with his uncompromising pursuit of his goals both add drama to his feat in Venice. The 51-year-old’s schooling ended in middle school due to poverty. His teenage days were instead spent on factory assembly lines crammed in industrial slums. After military service, he landed in Paris and made a living by sketching portraits. After he mastered drawing, he discovered films in his 30s. He likes to describe himself as “a monster that fed and grew on an inferiority complex.”
He writes, directs, produces and finances his films to explore human psychology, cruelties and contradictions and to consider questions and answers about life. While snubbed as an eccentric outsider by the local industry, Kim’s startling films have been recognized on the international stage and he is regularly invited to awards ceremonies. He won the best director award in 2004 for “Bin-jip” in Venice, while another film, “Samaritan Girl,” snatched up the same honor in Berlin the same year.
Kim’s success is a pleasant surprise for filmmakers who fall outside of the mainstream. “Pieta,” the Italian word for pity, takes artistic inspiration from Michelangelo’s masterpiece portraying Mary cradling the dead Christ. In its coarse and disturbingly violent scenes, the film unabashedly bares the truth behind greedy capitalism and asks fundamental questions about humanity.
Winning the top prize with such a grisly story suggests that the international film community has come to truly accept Korean film as an art form of its own. As the viral sensation of “Gangnam Style” by Psy demonstrates, Korean young people have infinite talents that can appeal to the broader global audience - not necessarily through heavy marketing - but simply by showcasing promising work. We applaud Kim for succeeding in his stubborn quest to pursue his dream, even if it wasn’t always the easiest path to take.