The Isle is about love,” says Korean director Kim Ki-duk, in town to promote his exquisitely cyclical Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring. “It’s about how extreme the relationship between a man and a woman can become.” Extreme would entail murder, graphic fishhook ingestion, and the vivid dispatch of assorted animals. But The Isle (2000) has other quarry. As Kim, dressed top to toe in up-to-the-minute black, puts it, “My films ask, What is life? What are human beings?”
When told that Spring, Summer shares a key plot point with The Isle—a murdering lover flees to a remote lake—Kim acknowledges the similarity, but disavows intent. Though both films place all-too-human lusts in the context of nature, the tone differs dramatically. Shaped by Kim’s personal interpretation of Buddhism (he’s a longtime Christian) and the religion’s profound influence on Korean society, Spring, Summer bursts with images—a frog tied to a rock, a writhing caduceus—that haunt and refresh the mind. Doorways punctuate wall-less borders. Kim calls these portals “image doors,” explaining, “They stand for something very unique about Korean culture—the sense of ri, of decorum and propriety.” He points out that after the young monk (whose life the film revisits at key intervals, and whose final version is played by Kim himself) has sex, he goes around the door, rather than opening it, as he did previously. “Koreans respect doors,” Kim says politely, “but what’s really important is life.”
Kim was born in 1960, the son of farmers in Kyongsang province. He started working in factories at 16, and five years later joined the marines, in which he served for another five years. Next he spent three years volunteering at a small church for the blind, before moving to Paris. There he studied painting, producing portraits of “very poor people”; he also saw The Silence of the Lambs and Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge, which sparked an interest in film. At least two of the screenplays preceding his 1996 directorial debut (A Crocodile) featured painter protags, and his ravishing compositions betray his former career.
In one evanescent Spring, Summer scene, the old monk uses a brush dipped in water to practice calligraphy on a piece of tile—”That way, you can perpetually write,” Kim says. His own prolific output—10 films in eight years—suggests a deep well, and he believes that a scenario comes quickly to him because “I have written it all my life.” (His latest, Samaritan Girl, won Best Director at Berlin this year; it ends by a lake.) He’s currently working on Yuri, a historical epic about how Korean refugees in the Three Kingdoms era (57 B.C.-A.D. 668) migrated to Japan, bringing with them Buddhism and—some historians believe—establishing what would become the Japanese imperial family. The scale and era will be a change for Kim, but the controversy won’t.