Arirang, screening at the Korean Film Festival in Australia at the end of the month, is a documentary from iconic Korean filmmaker, Kim Ki-duk. Plagued by personal issues following an accident on production of his latest feature in 2008, Dream, the director turned to self-imposed exile and spiraled into depression. Shot by Ki-duk entirely by himself from a desolate shack on top of a mountain using a Canon Mark II digital camera, Arirang is a self-reflexive and confessional video diary. It is an insight into Ki-duk’s fractured mental state at the time as he takes a look back at his career to date, questions what cinema means to him now and if his filmmaking has any purpose in the world, and tries to come to terms with the accident and his conflicting emotions.
The lead actress in Dream was almost killed when a hanging scene went wrong. She suffered a near fatal injury and was narrowly saved by Ki-duk. For a couple of years the director lived in a state of anxiety and depression, completely removing himself from the world of filmmaking and international festivals and acclaim. It was during this period that he put this film together. Interestingly, Arirang screened as part of the Un Certain Regard at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and picked up the top prize. Ki-duk attended the festival and allowed to be interviewed.
As a documentary study it is often very interesting, but as a cinema experience it is nothing short of gruelling. A large chunk of the 100 minute runtime (which admittedly, feels too long) includes shots of Ki-Duk involved in mundane activities like scouring the surrounding lands, collecting water, making himself food and coffee and staring off towards the horizon. In between these shots are lengthy sequences of Ki-duk discussing an array of topics in front of the camera; from the incident to his career, and even ideas of existentialism.
In this unflinchingly real, self-indulgent and self-deprecating reflection Ki-duk reveals devastating truths about himself and intimate details about past collaborations and projects. He is urged to confess by a second version of Ki-duk, who is filmed separately and situated on the other side of the room. This footage is cut together to resemble an interview. They are easy to distinguish between because the second Ki-duk has his hair tied back and possesses a calm but cynical demeanour. This second Ki-Duk is the still-logical thinker - the filmmaker - trying to regain control of this lost soul. During the course of the film, and particularly during these exchanges, Ki-duk breaks into song and the film is lent its title from one particular Korean folk ballad.
But the film gets even more bizarre because there is also another version of Ki-duk, watching himself on a monitor - his teary confessions and inspired rambling. This version seems to be even more composed, and seems to be involved in some post-production work. His Macbook and this large monitor seem out of place amongst the rest of the items in the shack. For example, he sleeps in a tent, pitched in the middle of the room, and there is no functioning toilet. This version is then questioned by 'his shadow' – talking through the monitor – and answers some existential questions in a thoughtful and philosophical fashion.
What does all this mean? I'm not sure. I do know that a lot of what Ki-duk says makes sense and his discussions are interesting enough to warrant sitting through the rest. I feel like it is essential viewing for admirers of Ki-Duk's films and anyone familiar with the incident, but if you are unacquainted with his filmmaking it might be difficult to understand and relate to what he is talking about. As I am relatively new to Korean filmmaking, I am yet to watch any of his films. I found it to be both insightful and agonising.
On one hand it was innovative filmmaking (and it is unclear whether this was a premeditated project or an on-the-fly idea) and fascinating biographical study, and on the other, a frustrating bore at times. But, Ki-duk, as he explains, does not care what people think of his films. He has been both praised and criticised before, and he knows this film will be a challenge for audiences. It was a film made for himself, which for some viewers might seem to be a little selfish, but he justifies the need to help himself overcome his troubles. By documenting how he is feeling and then reflecting on it, he just might be able to break his unexpected abstinence from filmmaking.
He is one of Korea’s most highly regarded auteurs, and one of its most prolific, making 15 films since between 1996 and 2008, and working not just as writer and director but also often producer and editor. As he recounts some of his achievements, one can’t help but be impressed that throughout his career he has continued to pursue his own unique vision and style of filmmaking. When you begin to understand the reasoning behind his breakdown – and how his feelings have defined him as both a man and a filmmaker – it becomes very interesting. Though it is a little long and patchy, this is a significant achievement. It is an engrossing and devastating work and a bold, self-deprecating road to personal redemption. Lets hope his inspiration to make films has been reignited and he can return to producing quality films.
Arirang is screening in Sydney on Saturday 25 August, 4.30pm.
Visit KOFFIA's website for more details.