Although wildly antithetical, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle and his faux-Buddhist breakout Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring share a few strands of DNA: the lakes, the mistrust of dialogue, a vivid sense of self-mythology. Bad Guy (2001), one of the seven films in Kim’s fascinating back catalog, is another kind of cocktail—simple, bitter, served straight and in an unwashed glass. The scenario’s oddball reveal is almost whimsical: A glaring thug (Jo Jae-hyeon) spots a young coed (Seo Won) in a Seoul street crowd, sits beside her on a bench, and soon enough grabs her for a kiss that soldiers have to break up. She spits on him, putting the unseen gears of vengeance and obsession in motion.
The impulsive, silent goon—who wears an impressive scar that spans the width of his throat—turns out to be a petty gangster and brothel owner, and before long the girl is implicated in a pickpocketing that lands her in the whorehouse, forced to work off her debt on her back. Of course, the rooms have two-way mirrors, and our antihero watches his prey’s fall into iniquity from the darkness. But Bad Guy isn’t actually about revenge, Park Chan-wook-style—the plot meanders, toying with the amour fou between captive and captor, and Kim never settles for a theme. The beguilingly Magritte-ish climax could be read either as an “Owl Creek” death fantasy or . . . something else, and there are moments of voyeur poetry that leave a gentle thumbprint. If anything, Bad Guy is more enigmatic than his other hyperbolic parables. Kim has been uniquely excoriated by some critics for his successes, but here’s to his entire mysterious corpus finding stateside projector time.