Kim Ki-duk, the world’s leading film director, went into filmmaking at the age of 36, having never studied cinematography as a profession. He made 15 films during 13 years, which opened festivals and received awards at Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary, Locarno and Cannes; the films were memorized thanks to their pain, love, cruelty and tenderness. His characters look either like fish or birds: sometimes they do not talk at all (3-Iron). However, you can never tear yourself away from the big screen; you never know what they will decide, what they will do. They are so much in love with each other, but the stronger this feeling is, the more painful this relationship is. They are intercrossed with invisible, mystic threads (Bad Guy) and sometimes they severely punish (The Isle) or search for themselves (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring).
Nowadays Kim Ki-duk very much resembles the character of his most famous film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.He himself played the role of this character eight years ago. Today he lives in the mountains of South Korea. He has a one-storey house made of planks and the coldness that slips into its walls freezes even water in the room. To avoid freezing he has placed a small tent inside the house. He has lived here for three years already after his lead actress almost died by hanging while playing a scene in his last film Dream. Everybody supposed that she died, but as it turned out later, she simply lost her mind. After that incident he sat down in his cell and cried for a long time. Kim Ki-duk, the film director who was writing the script for his next film during the editing the previous one, kept silent for the following three years.
He invented the Espresso machine himself. He puts snow in a small saucepan, lets it melt and then boils rice and dry soups. He is a real ascetic — now I am telling you about his confession, his suicide and sorrow, his documentary Arirang.
He does not want this film to be called a documentary, reiterating that it is a drama. Locked away in the tent, he gave an interview to himself. “Why am not I shooting films any more?” he asks himself; “Because I cannot do it any more; I think that I will not be able to do it. But I miss it so much… that I am shooting a film about myself. Pause — Kim Ki-duk! Why are not you shooting films anymore?” It is strange to look for 100 minutes at a man, who is quarrelling with himself, who is asking questions and answering them himself. Sometimes he is either eating his soup noisily, or squatting in the snow, or else singing about his own life sadly so that it makes your heart break. Arirang. space. “Arirang” space. 3-Iron. space. “3-Iron” space. The Isle. space. “The Isle” space. Samaria. space. “Samaria”
Arirang is a sad Korean melody. He is crying, weeping like a child… He is telling you that he would be nothing, a nonentity if it were not for you! His viewer! Then he makes coffee and watches the materials he shot. Like his other films, this drama also ends unexpectedly. He kills his pain with a handmade weapon.
He returned from his ascetic life with Arirang. The film won Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
“This is what South Korea looks like — he leafs through a paper and makes some outlines with a pen — here is Seoul, the capital. This is Pusan and there are small villages here. Generally, regions are divided into provinces in Korea. I am from one of the villages of Kansan. By the way, this is one of the coldest places of Korea. I was born in 1960.”
Today’s interview takes place with the help of an interpreter. Although the famous Korean director travels much (with the exception of the last three years) and participates in various prestigious festivals, he does not speak any foreign language — I know little, he says. Therefore, Gulnar will be our mediator.
— You spent your childhood in a small village of South Korea. What do you remember most vividly of that period?
I was nine when my family moved to Seoul. Before that, I spent nine years in nature. I got accustomed to that life so much… I still love it. Today I again live this way, in nature. I have not received full secondary education. When I turned 15, I started working at a plant. We were producing spares, more precisely various parts related to electricity. I was even making this (he paints a button on a paper). Later I worked at the plant, where we produced scrap metal from cars. It appears that I was working at the plant from the age of 15 to 21. I served in the army from the age of 21 to 26 and in church from the age of 26 to 30. It was a special church for the blind. I was about 30 when I left for Paris. It was just then when I had to travel to Europe twice and got acquainted with cinema, when I started collecting materials and thinking about shooting a film myself.
— Probably it was not so easy to leave everything and move to Paris, to make this decision?
Although I did not know the language, although I had no money and was earning a living by painting people in the streets, I can’t say that it was difficult. That time has taught me a lot. On the whole, there were four important periods in my life, which have determined many things: the first, which is related to childhood and nature; the second, related to my work at the plant; the third, related to the army; and the fourth related to Europe. Life is in stages.
— As far as I know, you have never studied film directing?
No, and generally, I did not seen any films before I turned 30. I remember my first films: The Silence of The Lambs with Anthony Hopkins and Les amants du Pont-Neuf by Leos Carax. These two films impressed me so much. Since then I started watching films and I discovered: Emir Kusturica, Shohei Imamura — everything that helped me get some idea about the film industry.
— It was written about you that you were a difficult teenager, is it true?
No, that’s not so. Anyway, I don’t remember it. Generally, my remarks are often misinterpreted. Once I was asked about my mother and I told them that she had never taught me to read and write. And they wrote that my mother could not teach me to read and write, because she was blind. This is written in the book Kim Ki-duk published in France. Now everybody thinks that my mother is blind. So … I was not a difficult child, but I had a very strict father. He used to beat me each Saturday — I was punished this way, because I was fond of painting, while he thought that it would lead me nowhere and I was trifling away my time. There are families, where children receive love and attention from their parents; I have never had that. I have never felt any interest from my parents. My father wanted me to stay in the factory in order to obtain a job. As long as I remember, I always resisted this.
— Resistance — this quality is not alien to your characters. On the whole, your films are full of symbols. There is nothing accidental in your films; even each animal that appears on the screen has its purpose. And what is most typical, people constantly suffer in your films. Is life so difficult? Actually, I don’t think that my films are only about pain. For me, life is a cycle, like time inconsistency: autumn, winter… pain, love… rain, snow … sorrow, joy, death… nothing is permanent and everything is the same.
— You have mentioned death, which is always outlined in your films. It is always close. What is death? Previously I believed that it was transition from one life to another, the same as religious people believe: some go to paradise, others somewhere else… Now, I think that it is a cleansing, purity. Death is the end of everything. This is a moment when a person becomes totally free. All his pains and memories disappear along with his death… And nothing else exists.
— “I am very much afraid of love” – this is your phrase…
Yes, I said that. Love is not simple and many people are afraid of it, as it leaves wounds. But man is more dangerous than love. Now, I’m more afraid of human beings.
— Many famous directors have their own talismans: things they keep while shooting a film. Do you believe in such omen? No, I never keep any talismans. But if I enter a place, any closed building and a bird flies into it or, for example, a fish jumps out of the water, I will certainly take it in my hands and make a wish before releasing it. I had five such cases and I always request one and the same thing: to bring me success in my activities; or insects, whom people do not even notice – if I come across them, I always put them into a safe place. I used to meet them (he shows me a paper with a ladybird). I believe in it.
— There were legends about a Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. He could do hundreds of takes in order to get the wanted look from an actor. What does Kim Ki-duk look like while shooting a film? Is it possible to change the scenario in the process of shooting?
Yes, it has happened. Improvisation is also quite possible. I am not strict at all. I have suspended shooting when I felt that something had gone wrong with an actor. For me, it is most important to express the main point and I do not pay too much attention to the details. It should be noted that I don’t like superstars in my films. They have their own ambitions: starting with managers and ending with costumes and their own makeup artists. A lot of people are constantly accompanying them. And it creates certain discomfort on the ground. I have invited several Korean, Japanese and Chinese actors, but I have agreed with them from the very beginning that they should come alone.
— Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… which season is for you now?
Winter. If you imagine this tree without leaves, when it is standing in the frost alone. It is preparing for something, isn’t it?…
— How do you want the people to remember you? As an open, kind person, like this tree. That’s my wish.
— And finally, what is Kim Ki-duk dreaming about?
I want to make such a film that nobody has made yet: something that has never been made before and that nobody else will be able to shoot.
© FIPRESCI 2011