Set in the South Korea of the 1970s, Address Unknown takes place in a small and impoverished town that lays a little too close for comfort to the North Korean border. The effects of the cold war are still being felt in the area and the threat of war looms large over the citizens who live in the area. An American military base in the area provides some comfort but at the same time also manages to serve as a different form of takeover, one that a lot of the South Koreans see as equally threatening.
The film revolves around four different people who reside in this rather gloomy little corner of the world and who have had to deal with the after effects of war and poverty. Chang-guk is a young man who lives with his mother inside of an old, beaten up red school bus. His mother, quite insane she is, continuously writes letters to his father, a black man who served as a soldier during the war but who has since returned back to America from where he came originally. Each and every one of the letters she sends him is returned to her, stamped 'Address Unknown' but this doesn't stop her from continuing to write him on a regular basis, almost like clockwork. Chang-guk hates his mother and hates the fact that she won't let go to a dead relationship. He has difficulty dealing with his emotions and periodically will raise his hand toward her out of frustration and anger. She never defends herself, she simply takes the abuse.
Then there's Ji-heum, a meek teenager who probably should be in school but instead has found employment at a small portrait/photography studio. He's got problems at home too, though they stem not from his mother but from his father who tends to be very much in his face at all times, constantly barraging him with stories of his brave deeds during the war. The light in Ji-heum's world comes in the form of a girl named Eun-ok, who he has a rather obvious crush on, despite the fact that she's blind in one eye – the result of a childhood joke that went very, very wrong. Ji-huem sees himself as Eun-ok's protector, in a sense. Her life is difficult due to her injury and she's quite humbled by the effect that it has had on her physical appearance, choosing to cover the injured half of her face behind her long black hair. Ji-heum's world gets shaken up a bit when Eun-ok starts to have feelings for an American solider stationed in the area named James. She's further under her spell when he tells her that he'll put out the money so that she can have the eye surgery that she'll need.
Finally, there's Chang-guk, who is a half breed and as such is the object of ridicule throughout the small and narrow minded town. The only one who will do business with him is Dog Eye, who is, oddly enough, the local butcher, and a remarkably cruel man who specializes in serving up canine fare. Without going into anymore detail, let it suffice to say that in a very odd way, all of these principal players in the story are pulled into one another's world with predictably unfortunate results that effectively demonstrate the inherent cruelty and selfish nature of man.
Rarely has a film portrayed human suffering with such unflinching accuracy as in this film. Pretty much everyone in the movie is put through the ringer - sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and sometimes both. Dog lovers will probably want to keep the fast forward button ready on the remote as even the animals in the film suffer (though the warning at the beginning of the film does remind us that it is simulated and not real, thankfully). Everyone in this small town has been affected by the war and while it might be over in the physical sense, the after effects of it are still going strong and doing just as much damage, albeit in a very different manner of course. Even the American soldiers, brought in to keep the peace and do some good in the area (or at least that's the general idea behind their presence) are anguished, never sure who their real enemy is or what they're really doing there so far away from their homeland and placed into such a confusing situation. Every relationship in the film has also been twisted beyond repair. Be it Eun-ok's strange relationship with her puppy or Ji-huem's relationship with his partially demented father or, of course, Chang-guk and his mother. No one is able to find happiness in the village, proving that there are no clear victors of the recently ended war between the Koreas, only massive amounts of victims.
What makes this gloomy drama so effective is the typically simple direction from Kim Ki-duk and the excellent performances from the cast. Everyone is completely believable in their roles (with the glaring exception of the actor who plays James – it's hard to accept him in the role and at times he overacts to the point where it almost becomes comedic) and there's a sense of honesty underneath the melodrama that almost feels a little too real. Without having grown up in Korea or really learned more than the basic history of the country and the war that has ripped it in two, it's difficult to grasp the entirety of the film but it is obviously a sore spot for the director and the cast who really do seem to pour themselves into the movie. The film manages to be sympathetic without being judgmental, in that it is a very observational piece of work, a strange mix of sadness, black humor, cruelty, beauty and love.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is decent, but far from perfect. There's a moderate amount of film grain present on the image, which isn't really such a big deal however this is joined by a surprising amount of mild print damage that shows up in the form of some specks here and there. There's nothing that's really glaring, but it is there and it is pretty constant. There's also a certain murkiness that affects the detail in the image – part of this is likely an artistic choice on the part of the cinematographer and the director, but it also looks like it has been compounded by some less than perfect compression. That being said, the movie is perfectly watchable. The skin tones look lifelike and accurate and the black levels stay fairly strong. There isn't a lot of edge enhancement or line shimmering to complain about, though things look to be a little on the dark side. The movie could have looked better, but it could have looked worse as well.
There are two Korean language audio tracks on this release, supplied in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and in DTS 5.1 Surround Sound. Optional subtitles are provided in English and in Korean for the feature only.
The quality of either mix should please most viewers. Dialogue is clean, clear and free of any hiss or distortion. The evocative score creeps up from behind in a few scenes and adds plenty of atmosphere to an already very atmospheric movie. Sound effects and background music are balanced perfectly behind the performers who are never overshadowed. While this isn't a mix that you're going to want to use to show off your home theater system, there are some very noticeable instances of channel separation that make good use of the rear speakers in the set up. It's not an overly aggressive mix by any means, but it doesn't have to be and what we have here is completely effective and it suits the movie just fine.
The extras are spread across the two discs in this set, and none of them feature any English subtitles at all, making them hard to evaluate.
Disc one has a synopsis of the film, an 'about the movie' blurb, some cast and crew text biographies, and a small still gallery. There's also a commentary track included with Kim Ki-duk and some of the actors from the film but without any subtitles, it's obviously not going to work for you unless you speak Korean.
On the second disc we find a text filmography and biography of Kim Ki-duk, a video interview with Kim Ki-duk that runs about seven minutes, a text piece called Kim Ki-Duk's ideal that is all in Korean and thus unintelligible to me, a small still gallery, a brief clip of the director wandering around the Venice film festival, the theatrical trailer, and interviews with the five principal performers from the film. In addition, there's a fifteen minute behind the scenes segment that show a lot of the shot set ups, and contains some brief interviews with the director and his cast members – again, no subs, so I can't really offer any more information than that.
About as bleak s they come, Address Unknown isn't a movie for all tastes. It's a dark, depressing film with a whole lot of unlikable characters dealing with some grim situations. That being said, it's very well made, contains some good performances, and manages to make you think a little bit. Not the best place to start with Kim Ki-duk's filmography but those who are a little more accustomed to his style should get quite a bit out of this film. The DVD could have looked better and it's a drag that there are no English subtitles on the supplements but the audio mix is solid and the film holds up well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.