Kim Ki-duk, one of the world’s leading film directors, did not start shooting films until the age of 36. Even though he never studied cinematography as a profession, the fifteen cinematic works he has created in the past thirteen years have received awards at Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary, Locarno and Cannes film festivals. His enigmatic characters evoke profound feelings of pain, love, cruelty and tenderness. They appear symbolically as tortured fish and vulnerable birds. Sometimes they do not speak at all (“3-Iron”) yet they mesmerize us with their haunting silence. They are at times maddening and often impenetrable – you never know what they will decide, what they will do. They love intensely and the deeper their passion for one another, the more painful their relationship. They are interwoven with invisible, mystic threads (“Bad Guy”) and can brutally punish themselves through self-mutilation (“The Isle”) or seek spiritual renewal through enlightenment (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”).
The Kim Ki-duk of today is very much like the main character of his most celebrated work, the 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring,” in which he played a credited lead role as a Buddhist monk. He now lives in the mountains of South Korea. His single-story house is made of planks and the coldness that seeps through its walls freezes water in the room. To stay warm, he has erected a small tent inside the house. He retreated there three years ago after his lead actress nearly died while shooting a hanging scene in his last film “Dream.” He miscalculated something and the actress barely escaped death. When she lost consciousness during the hanging scene, they thought she had died. After that incident, Kim Ki-duk sat alone and cried for a long time. The prolific film director and screenwriter, who used to write the script of his next film while editing his previous one, remained silent himself for the next three years.In seclusion, he invented his own espresso machine. He melts snow in a small saucepan and then cooks rice and dry soups. He is a real ascetic …. but now I am telling you about his confession, his sorrow and symbolic suicide, about his cinematic self-portrait – “Arirang.”
He does not want this film to be called a documentary, insisting that “Arirang” is a drama. Still … locked alone inside his tent, he conducts a self-interview: “Why am I not shooting films any more?” he asks himself, then answers, “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 you not shooting films any more?” It is quite strange to spend one-hundred minutes watching a man quarrelling with himself, asking and then answering his own questions, eating soup noisily, squatting in the snow, and then singing about his own life so sadly that your heart breaks.
“Arirang” is a sorrowful Korean melody. He weeps like a child, lamenting that he would be nothing, a nonentity, if it were not for you – his viewer! Then he makes coffee again and views on his Macintosh the footage he just shot of himself. Like his other films, this “drama” also ends abruptly. He kills his pain with a weapon fashioned by his own hand.He emerged from his ascetic life with “Arirang.” The film won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
“This is how South Korea looks,” he says and takes a paper to sketch some contours with a pen. “Here is Seoul, the capital. This is Pusan. Here are small villages. Generally, regions in Korea are divided into provinces. I am from one of the villages of Kansan. By the way, this is one of the coldest places in Korea. I was born in 1960.”
Today’s interview is being conducted with the help of our interpreter Gulnar. Although the world-famous Korean director traveled extensively and participated in many international festivals before his three-year hiatus, he does not speak any foreign language.
You spent your childhood in one 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 became accustomed to that life … I still love it very much. I live in this way again, in nature.
I have not completed secondary education. When I turned fifteen, I started working at a plant. We produced details, or to be more precise, various electricity-related items. I was even making this (he paints a button on a piece of paper). Then I worked at another plant which produced scrap metal out of motorcars. Thus, I worked in plants between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-six, I served in the army; from twenty-six to thirty, in the church – it was a special church for the blind. I was about thirty when I first left for Paris. In those times I travelled to Europe twice. It was then when I first saw a movie, and I started collecting materials and thinking about shooting films myself.
It must not have been easy to leave everything and move to Paris, to make that 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 would not say that it was difficult. That time taught me much. Generally, there were four important periods in my life which determined many things: the first is related to childhood and nature; the second, related to my work at plants; the third, related to the army, and the fourth, related to Europe. Life is like stages.
As far as I know, you have never studied film directing?
No, and generally I had not seen any films before I turned thirty. I remember my first films: “The Silence of The Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins and “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” by Leos Carax. Those two films impressed me so much. After that I started watching films and I discovered: Emir Kusturica, Shōhei Imamura – everything that helped me form some idea about the film industry.
It has been written that you were a difficult teenager. Is that true?
No, it was not so. At least I do not remember anything like that. 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,’ which was 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 very fond of painting, and he thought that it would lead me to nothing 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 plant and get some position there. As long as I remember myself, I always resisted it.
Resistance – this quality is not strange for your characters either. And generally, your films are full of symbols. There is nothing accidental in your films; even each animal which appears on the screen has its own purpose. And, what is most typical, people constantly suffer in your films. Is life so difficult?
Actually, I do not think that my films are only about pain. For me, life is a cycle, like time alteration: autumn, winter… pain, love… rain, snow … sorrow, joy, death. Nothing is permanent; the same is here.
You have mentioned death. It is always present in your films. It is always close. What is death?
Earlier, I believed it was a transition from one life to another, just like religious people believe some go to the paradise, others somewhere else… Now, I think that it is purgation, purity. Death is the end of everything, the moment when a person becomes totally free, with all pains and memories vanishing, dispersing together with death… And nothing else exists without it.
“I am very much afraid of love” – this is your phrase…
Yes, I said it. Love is not simple and many people are afraid of it because it leaves wounds. But more dangerous than love is a human. Now I am more afraid of a human.
Many famous directors have their own talismans, a thing with which they never part during the shooting of a film. Do you believe in superstitions or good-luck charms?
No, I never carry any such things. But if I enter any place, any closed building, and a bird flies into it or, for example, if a fish jumps out of the water, I will certainly take it in my hands and make a wish before releasing it. I have had five such incidents in total and I always wish one and the same thing – for them to bring me success in my activities. Or insects, which people do not even notice – if I come across them, I always carry them away to a safe place. I meet them frequently (he shows me a paper with a ladybird). I believe in it.
There were legends about Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. He would do hundreds of takes in order to get the necessary look from an actor. What is Kim Ki-duk like when shooting a film? Is it possible to change a scenario in the process of shooting a film?
Yes, such a thing has happened. Improvisation is also possible. I am not rigid at all. There were occasions when I suspended shooting when I had felt something became complicated for an actor/actress, something went wrong. For me, the most important thing is to express the main point, and I do not pay too much attention to details. There is, however, one thing I do not like – superstars in my films. They have their own ambitions, starting from managers and ending with costumes and their own makeup artists and a lot of people follow them everywhere. This creates certain discomfort on the shooting ground. I invited several famous Korean, Japanese and Chinese actors, but only after agreeing with them in advance that they would come alone to the shooting ground.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… which season is for you now?
Winter. If you imagine this tree without leaves, standing in the frost alone. It is preparing for something, isn’t it?...
How would you like people to remember you?
As an open, kind person, like this tree. This is my wish.
And finally, what does Kim Ki-duk dream about?
I want to make such a film that has not been shot by anyone so far, that has not been made before and that no one will be able to shoot but me.