(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim
The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.
That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.
Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.
Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?
Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?
The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.
The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.
One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.
Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.
The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.
The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.
REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.
REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..
FAMILY VALUES: Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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