Arirang (2011) Movie Review

Arirang (2011) Movie Image

Screened at the 2012 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

Controversial and (very) angry Korean director Kim Ki Duk returns after an absence of 3 years with the self-reflective documentary “Arirang”. Having taken a break from film making after an accident when shooting a suicide scene for his 2008 outing “Dream” almost killed his lead actress and deeply traumatised him, Kim had apparently been living since in a small isolated cabin deep in the snowy mountains. “Arirang” was shot on a camcorder during this self-imposed exile, possibly as a form of therapy or disclosure, and basically follows Kim as he reminisces on his career and experiences, laying his soul bare in the process, as well as drinking a great deal and ranting about the Korean film industry.

There’s no question that “Arirang” is not a film for the casual viewer, and despite it having won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, it’s also likely to nonplus art house aficionados and even some fans of Kim’s earlier works. Certainly, much of the film of it may not mean much to audiences unfamiliar with his career, and for his detractors will probably only serve to confirm criticisms of him being pretentious and aggressively obtuse. To be fair, it is understandable that for many the film will seem self-indulgent, as for long stretches of its 100 minute running time it simply follows Kim as he goes about his daily business and his life in the rundown shack, which is so cold that he has to sleep in a tent when indoors. This is interspersed with Kim giving lengthy, often obscure monologues and interviewing himself in various ways, even going so far as to edit together a sequence where he discusses his career with his shadow. Knocking back a fair amount of soju, Kim frequently gets drunk and sings the titular song, which at times degenerates into him howling and weeping.

Arirang (2011) Movie Image

Although a documentary, “Arirang” does have the feel of Kim’s fiction films, and it sees him playing around with the line between fact and fiction, particularly during the really quite insane final fifteen minutes or so. There’s a fair amount of weirdness, with repeated scenes of Kim getting up to answer a knock at the door, only to find no one there, and a long sequence of him watching himself as an actor in his 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring”, and seemingly being incredibly moved by his performance. Kim openly acknowledges this manipulative ambiguity, and ponders himself where the line is between documentary and drama, with a few odd winks at the audience.

Again, whilst perhaps egotistical, for some viewers at least all of this is really quite fascinating, as it shows that the personality which has come through in his films is indeed his, and helps understanding of his works. He does go into a lot of detail about his childhood and his outsider status from early on, and this leads tellingly into his self-interviews about the development of his career and his uncertain identity in the Korean film industry. As a result, there’s no denying that whether viewed as a documentary or some kind of art film project, “Arirang” is an amazingly open and honest work, which genuinely gives the feel of spending time with and getting inside the head of Kim. It does come across as an autobiographical piece, or perhaps a confession of sorts, with Kim being only too aware of the vague ridiculousness of it all, watching back video of him crying or pontificating and finding it difficult not to laugh at himself.

As he explains it, although he needed to take a break from making films, Kim was simply unable to stop filming, and “Arirang” does indeed feel like a bizarre form of therapy, though only time will tell if the experience proved cathartic. A film which will speak deeply to some and utterly isolate others, it’s a nakedly emotional and at times quite deranged piece of work very much in the director’s inimitable style, proving him again to be a visionary of considerable talent and artistry.

Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Ki-duk Kim

Buy Arirang on DVD