Kim Ki-duk’s most notorious film, Bad Guy, tells the story of a helium-voiced thug who demonstrates his love for a pretty young college student by forcing her into prostitution. To judge from the rhetoric surrounding the director over the past few years, you’d think that was autobiography, and that Kim’s real-life victim had been a critic’s beloved little sister. Self-anointed Pacific Rim gatekeeper Tony Rayns, who until last year programmed the Rotterdam film fest’s influential “Dragons and Tigers” slate of Asian cinema, fired the first volley in a vitriolic Film Comment broadside, painting Kim as a talentless poseur-pervert who’d somehow managed to crash the festival circuit via crude shock tactics. Pointy heads everywhere nodded in agreement, and suddenly international cinema had a new designated punching bag—a bad guy of its very own.
It’s easy enough to see how this happened. Unlike, say, fellow Korean helmer Hong Sang-soo’s empathetically fucked-up protags, with their precisely detailed confusion and passive-aggression, Kim’s “characters” tend to be abstract, symbolic ciphers—indeed, most of them hardly even speak. Without credible human behavior to fall back on, Kim’s films rise or fall on the strength of their ideas, which makes his whiffs— Address Unknown, The Bow, last month’s Cannes premiere Breath—close to insufferable. What’s more, the dude’s superego appears to have gone AWOL long ago, and unapologetic id-fests tend to lack the control and rigor cinephiles admire. The only way to get behind Kim Ki-duk, really, is to confess that his unsavory scenarios resonate with your personal experience. And who the hell wants to admit that?
Thing is, I can’t see how anybody, no matter how keen to preserve a positive self-image, could fail to identify with Time, Kim’s cheerfully lunatic allegory about two young lovers who undergo radical plastic surgery in a quixotic attempt to rekindle their fading romance. “Sorry for always having the same boring face,” the disturbingly high-strung Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon) tells Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo), her boyfriend of two years, after he fails to get it up one night. Able to coax an erection from him only by suggesting that he think about a woman he’d been eyeing in a café earlier, Seh-hee abruptly vanishes from Ji-woo’s life the next day, only to resurface six months later with an entirely new kisser and a very uncertain agenda. See-hee (Seong Hyeon-a), as she now calls herself—the distinction seems roughly analogous to Sara/Sarah—proceeds to seduce the heartbroken Ji-woo all over again, but can’t seem to decide whether she’d rather that he fall into her (same boring) arms or remain faithful to the memory of her former self.
That both Seh/See-hee and Ji-woo actually talk—there’s more dialogue here than in all of Kim’s previous films put together—is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the mute shtick, introduced in The Isle and honed in Bad Guy, 3-iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, was getting decidedly stale. On the other hand, ordinary human conversation is clearly not Kim’s forte. Seh-hee’s initial fit of jealousy, in particular, is so cartoonishly strident that it sets entirely the wrong tone, giving the impression of a poor shmuck tormented by a vindictive harpy. Needless to say, this feeds right into the naysayers’ charges of misogyny, though it’s hard to imagine a man who hates women devising the sad encounter between Ji-woo and a blind date who’s painfully aware of her unattractiveness. “If we turn around and make eye contact,” she proclaims at evening’s end, standing with her back against his, “then we should meet again.” Whereupon she counts to three and then walks away without a word or a backward glance, disappointed but with dignity intact.
Freed from the strictures of naturalism, however, Kim bulldozes through your nervous system. Ji-woo first encounters the “new” Seh-hee on a ferry bound for a small island, where the two of them had once visited a bizarre sculpture park replete with surreal figures in erotic poses. Seh-hee, now decked out in oversized sunglasses and a surgical mask embossed with fat red lips, looks no less mysterious and imposing. Seated on opposite sides of the ferry, she and Ji-woo, who has no idea he’s staring at his lost love, engage in a thrillingly suggestive game of keep-away, kicking a ball back and forth as its owner, a peeved little boy, scampers after it. The sequence is shot with such unerring precision, and invested with such metaphorical vigor, that they might as well be kicking your head.
Those aware that cosmetic surgery is endemic in South Korea are liable to jump to the conclusion that Kim intends Time as some sort of clumsy exposé. But he didn’t choose that title lightly. Save for a clinical opening-credits sequence, the film’s incisions are exclusively psychosexual. Duration’s corrosive effect on long-term relationships has rarely been depicted with such bracing candor. Simply put, Time is about the eternal war between infatuation and familiarity, and our irreconcilable need to find both in the same person. In other words, it’s a parable about the root of human unhappiness.