Fans of South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk have impatiently observed how the usually industrious director – infallibly releasing at least one film per year – has only recently directed a new film, Omen, after a three year absence following the release of 2008’s Dream. As it transpires, a disturbing accent on that film’s set – in which an actress required to play a hanging victim, very nearly hanged for real – shook up Ki-duk’s core sufficiently that he endured a major perspective change, and was considering giving up the director’s spurs once and for all. That struggle is embodied through his self-shot documentary, the occasionally compelling if maddeningly solipsistic Arirang.
Extremely low-fi even for the director’s economic standards, Arirang is a fly-on-the-wall look at Ki-duk’s grappling with guilt, mortality and a perceived pointlessness of existence. The first sights we see are of him going about his life, cutting trees with a chainsaw, staring at his cat, and living in a tent in the Korean wilderness. It is hardly what we would expect from a world-class filmmaker, and likewise, the film is not either. Rather, its singular focus on the director, as purposed by the director himself, opens a critique of self-indulgence on a new, unfounded level. We can so easily observe its artifice; the lack of handheld shots, use of POV, and static, locked-off cameras make everything feel forced and self-conscious. It doesn’t so much seem like a man’s self-imposed therapy as it does a filmmaker haphazardly concocting a contrived narrative, and on this strength (or rather, weakness), firmly story-driven fare is probably something he should stick to.
10 minutes go by before Ki-duk opens his mouth, at which point he essentially begins to interview himself. He claims he cannot make films anymore in light of the accident, and so has filmed himself as a confession of sorts, for he still needs to film to be happy. We learn that he has many film ideas whirring around in his head – including one which caught the interest of Willem Dafoe – but he resigns himself to drinking all day and essentially exalting his own body of work. Most self-effacingly, Ki-duk remarks the plaudits and fanfare his films have received, and that people are anxiously waiting for his next work.
Compounding the sour taste is a naïve perspective on the nature of filmmaking and collaboration, chiding a former assistant director for moving onto his own grander projects. From here, Ki-duk resorts to drunkenly singing, crying, and watching his own films, culminating in an unbearably strung-out five-plus minute sequence in which he watches his Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…And Spring. Problematically, while we can observe the director’s emotional purge, our own involvement is denied by the overarching self-absorption the entire project implies.
Throughout there are a few interesting riffs on the film industry, notably how he is ironically praised for boosting South Korea’s national image despite his unsavoury depiction of the citizens therein. Also, he openly engages with the idea that his emotional display is itself a work of performance, an embellishment in what he asserts is not a documentary, but a drama. The meta-narrative free-forming is a clever idea, but the format is so flat and bland, even seeming like a lecture at times, that his ideas about the insignificance of life and the stress we place on ourselves and the environment feel half-baked and tiresome.
The amount of hot air here suggests the concept would be far more functional as a short than a feature, for observing him reading and staring into space does not tell us much about him as a person, nor convey any sort of mood or atmosphere. It would seem that Ki-duk’s typically strong directorial instincts are best faced outward rather than within. When going inverse, he resorts to referring to himself in the third person, and in two laughable acts of shameless self-promotion, shows us his desktop wallpaper, which is of himself, before flashing a montage of his film posters onto the screen. As such, it often feels more like a filmmaker advertisement than anything meaningful in regard to his plight.
Where it really goes off the deep end is at its close, as Ki-duk picks up a gun and goes to work on avenging himself, an unquestionably symbolic assault on his audience, as if the film itself were not enough. There are intelligent and provocative ideas within Kim Ki-duk’s unbearably self-serving docudrama, but the auteur should stick to what he knows best.
Arirang is on limited release in UK cinemas tomorrow.