Kim Ki-duk may be one of the most polarizing directors working today. By most accounts, he's largely unappreciated in his native Korea and is far more acknowledged on the international circuit where he is both critically respected and derided. Having seen most of his films, I agree with both camps. I love the sublime beauty, surreal sensibility, and often operatic sense of violence in films like Samaritan Girl, Bad Guy, 3-Iron and The Isle. But I also recognize Kim Ki-duk's tendencies to go overboard and wield his cruel hand far too bluntly in films like The Coast Guard, Real Fiction and this film, Address Unknown (2001).
The film basically follows a handful of South Korean residents who live on the US Army protected border between South and North Korea. The focus is on three youths, Chan-guk who is the half breed result of a black US soldier's fling with his mother, the shy and bullied Jihum, and one-eyed schoolgirl Eunok.
Chan-guk and his mother are pretty much ostracized, he because of his bi-racial blood, his mother for being a floozy who had a half breed child. As a result, Chan-guk can only find work with a dog meat butcher called Dog-Eye, a man who routinely beats and belittles Chan-guk. Chan-guk's mother meanwhile, after twenty so years of being an outcast, is totally crazy. The title of the film refers to Chan-guk's attempts to contact his father in America, the letters invariably returned with ‟Address Unknown‟ stamped on them.
Jinhum loves/lusts after Eunok. While the two teens may be perfect for each other, their first attempts at romance are destroyed when the two bullies who frequently taunt Jinham interrupt and rape Eunok, further emotionally scarring the girl who already has hang-ups because of her dead eye. Jinhum tries to get revenge by making a homemade gun carved from one of the caution signs and using shell and gunpowder that are scattered thought the area. But he fails and the only time he is safe from the bullies is when the burly Chan-guk defends him.
Eunok is romanced by an American soldier. Actually romanced is too kind a word. Basically the druggie soldier promises her eye surgery at the base if she will become his kept woman. While Kim Ki-duk is by no means a realist film maker, it is still quite a stretch to buy into the scenario where this low level, frequently disciplined, openly flirting with going AWOL soldier successfully gets her treated and she is instantly healed.
Basically it is all about these characters and the abuses they suffer. The film leads to an ever mounting series of maltreatments that we know will eventually reach a breaking point. And of course, some peppering along the way about the division within Korea, like Jihum's father who hags out with a bunch of war vets, all grumbling over their lack of medals despite their kill list and war wounds. Also, for instance, the two bullies use their knowledge of English as a taunt of superiority, an obvious way Kim Ki-duk is commenting on the Americanization of his fellow Koreans. Eunuk's family too, subsists on goverment payment, which the govt pulls because they believe her soldier father was a defector instead of a captive.
So, by the end, the tally is- a character sent to prison, a character carved up and then self-immolated, a character shot and hung, a character dead via crashing and being half-buried in mud with their legs sticking up straight in the air, a character blinded, a character shot in the groin,... just to name a few. Good or bad, cruel or innocent, if you are a character in a Kim Ki-duk film (well, at least this kind of Kim Ki-duk film), odds are you got a dark end coming to you. In another life, he surely wrote for The Old Testament because he has that kind of pinpoint sense of latching on to the gruesome.
For me, what it boils down to is this- when it comes to film makers, there is a fine line between having a thoughtful voice and a downright sanctimonious voice. I think with Kim Ki-duk, he can sometimes lean a tad too far in the latter direction, a tendency I believe is purely due to his personal taste for the melodramatically tragic.
Now, that said, the first hour or so of Address Unknown is a really great movie. Kim Ki-duk has all gears clicking, colorful characters, a clear message, and while a tad over the top and leaden, still sufficiently grounded in poignant drama. But, then in an oddly predictable way for those that are familiar with his work, he just completely loses sight of any even-handedness. The last half of the movie becomes such a gross tragedy, it strains to the point of hysterics (and I mean hysterical madness and unintentionally hysterical funny bits because it is so overblown). Since the plot has introduced a gun, bow and arrow, and a transcendent reversal of fate for one character, you just know, Kim Ki-duk being Kim Ki-duk, that someone's getting shot by the gun, someone's getting shot by the arrow, and whatever fortune a character gets, its going to be overturned.
Kim Ki-duk's comments about the film further back up my complaints. On this discs short interview, he states three things he wanted to show in the film: one, an indictment of the US military presence in Korea because they are not subject to Korean law and therefore have gotten away with some callous actions, two, that the soldiers stationed there are having a hard time, and three, that he hopes with the US's aide that the unification process between North and South Korea can be realized. The conflict between those three statements is only furthered by the not so subtle, hammer-to-the- face way he chose to address those issues. Point numero one is an issue I'm sure is no doubt true, yet Kim Ki-duk embodies it with a soldier who is batshit crazy to begin with, insubordinate, taking hallucinogenics, and this is his chosen, near fantasy, representation of a soldier behaving badly. Point two is shown by said soldier engaging in boring training drills, literally crying for his mommy, and complaining that it is ‟the landscape‟ that is bugging him and making him miss home. Point three I just don't see. There is nothing potentially positive shown about the US at all and the film seems to being a searing treatise on how better off Korea would be without the US military presence or overall American influence.
It is a shame really. I consider myself a huge fan of his work. As much as I loved the first half of this film, I completely hated the last half. To be fair, I was captivated by every second, even if those last moments it was in a car crash sort of way. While his other films like Samaritan Girl and The Isle contain bleak moments and grim outcomes for the characters, there is also an empathy and strange beauty in the films. In Address Unknown, the picture of the human condition is painted with such ludicrously black strokes you almost lose sight of Kim Ki-duk's message.
The DVD: Tartan
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Fittingly keeping to the grand design, the locations and photography present a pretty bleak place. With a landscape of overcast skies, rows of barbed wire fences, and fields of dried out grass and mud, it is about as colorless as a color film can get. Sharpness details appear to be pretty crisp, but the contrast doesn't fare as well and is tad grayed. The print has some specks and dirt, but appears decent when compared to other transfers of Kim's films from the same period.
Sound: 5.1, DTS, and 2.0 Surround, Korean language with optional English or Spanish subtitles and burned-in Korean subs during the English language bits. Now, despite this being a film with little in the way of explosive audio dynamics, I'm glad they included the DTS and 5.1 options. After all, if you've paid for the sound system, its nice to get that little extra push, even if, as in this case, its just a little boost to the simple score and fx.
Extras: Photo Gallery---- Tartan Release Trailers---- Intro (0:38) and Interview (3:25) with Kim Ki-duk. While an intro and interview is always nice in theory, these two are extremely brief, and Kim Ki-duk seems to be in sound bite, matter of fact mode and doesn't offer much that is very revelatory or candid.
Conclusion: I'm a lover of the bleakest of the bleak. I kiss the ground that Gaspar Noe walks on. I don't mind a film being tragic, as long as that tragedy is tempered with some empathy and a clear enough message. Despite being a fan of his work, I think Kim Ki-duk misses both these points and serves up characters that seem to amount to slaughterhouse fodder and muddles any good-intentioned message he might have. So, I'm erring on the side of a rental for Address Unknown, though the disc may be worth a purchase for fans that are completests.