“Time” is the thirteenth effort from Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, a director who has won multiple awards at international film festivals, yet whose work has largely been ignored in his home country. His films are usually controversial affairs, and “Time” continues this tradition, though not so much for its content as for the fact that Kim initially refused to have it released in Korean cinemas, eventually giving in after an online petition was signed by over 10,000 of his fans.
After the film finally emerged, it received a less than rapturous response in Korea, prompting him to embark on a number of public rants against domestic film critics and fans, and though he later apologised, his comments will certainly only have served to further cement his outcast status. All of this is rather a shame, as “Time” is actually a very good film, and one which sees Kim moving away from the religious surrealism of his last effort “The Bow” and back to the more grounded themes of identity and sexual politics which he dealt with previously in the likes of “The Isle” and “Bad Guy”, arguably among his stronger works.
Like other recent Korean films such as the teen horror “Cinderella”, “Time” is concerned with the issue of plastic surgery, though unsurprisingly Kim tackles the subject in a decidedly leftfield manner. The plot revolves around Se Hee (Sung Hyun Ah) and Ji Woo (Ha Jung Woo, “The Unforgiven”) a young couple who are gradually being torn apart by suspicion and paranoia. Upset at her increasingly violent jealousy and worried that Ji Woo will get bored with her, Se Hee makes the bizarre decision to disappear for several months, during which she undergoes plastic surgery to completely alter her face. Having done this, she attempts to work her way back into Ji Woo’s life, hoping both to begin a new romance and to find out whether he really loved her or not. Needless to say, tragedy ensues.
Although “Time” may sound every bit a typical Kim film, it is actually far less acerbic and cynical than the subject matter might suggest, and sees the director edging ever so slightly towards more conventional territory, at least by his standards. Certainly, the film has a fairly traditional structure, and though not exactly a comedy, it at least has a sly, playful sense of humour, something which has been entirely absent from Kim’s previous works.
Of course, “Time” is still quite far from being a mainstream drama, being ambiguous and quite obviously more concerned with symbolism and themes rather than emotion and character. This approach is largely successful, and it still allows Kim to ask a number of searching questions about human relationships, and to explore his usual concerns of love as manipulation and possession in a somewhat mature fashion. Indeed, “Time” is wholly free of the kind of shock tactics he has been accused of employing in the past, and although an outwardly simplistic film, it works quite subtly on a number of levels.
The only downside to this is the fact that although Kim moves away from the abstract, he never really fleshes his characters out enough for the film to work on an emotional level. This is perhaps not so much of a problem for fans of his work, as he certainly succeeds in his usual aim of engaging the mind, and the film is fascinating throughout, though it does at times make for cold and distant viewing. The character of Ji Woo in particular is a little thinly written, and although his constant bewilderment at the strange behaviour of Se Hee is understandable, the viewer never really learns much about him beyond this and his tendency to justify minor sexual indiscretions by saying ‘we’re all human’ repeatedly. Se Hee has a little more depth, though her motivations for her drastic actions remain largely up to the viewer’s interpretation right up until the inevitably surreal ending.
Kim’s direction is immaculate as always, and the film shows a clever sense of symmetry, both in terms of narrative and visuals. Apart from the use of some odd and possibly symbolic sculptures, he largely keeps things grounded, and though the proceedings have a controlled, minimalist air, “Time” comes across as a slice of modern human drama rather than an allegory or fable.
As such, “Time” is probably Kim’s most accessible offering to date, although whether it marks a new direction for his work remains to be seen. Perhaps not quite as biting or cryptic as his other films, “Time” is by no means less challenging or indeed entertaining, and actually benefits from Kim’s newfound sense of restraint, cementing his position as one of the most interesting film makers in the world today.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-woo Ha …. Ji-woo
Ji-Yeon Park …. Seh-hee
Hyeon-a Seong …. See-hee