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Moebius is a new film from South Korean provocateur Ki-Duk Kim. It's as psychologically complex as it is perverse, not to mention a dazzling exercise in style. Before watching it, I knew what it was about, but I was unaware that the fallout of the love triangle would be depicted without the use of dialogue, with Kim using only physical reactions, meaningful glances, and poignant pauses to convey emotional exposition. It's frequently hard to watch, due to the bodily harm the characters inflict on not just each other but also themselves, and for the taboo subject matters it dives into (apparently even more taboo in South Korea). It also features a stunning performance by Eun-woo Lee, who plays both the wife and the quiet mistress, in a dual performance so convincing I didn't realize it was the same actress until I was looking at the cast list on IMDb. Kim may ultimately leave a little too much up for interpretation, but he has such sympathy for each of these tormented people that the film comes off as strangely compassionate, and even if he does little more than ask the audience to chew on these ideas, he certainly provides plenty for the chewing.
The first and most obvious idea that comes up is the Oedipus complex, especially when the son, successfully patched up following the incident but now a eunuch, meets and becomes attracted to his father's mistress. At one point, after the father stops returning her calls, the mistress shows up at their house and sees the son inside the car, so when he arrives at her shop, she knows who he is. Not only is she portrayed by the same person, but she also reveals her breasts to him, a symbol of motherhood, which he grasps before running away. The father, meanwhile, scours the internet for any article about a successful penis transplant, eventually donating his organ to his son out of guilt over his son's disfigurement. Although the surgery is successful, the son is unable to get an erection around the grocer despite plenty of stimulation. No guesses as to what eventually solves the problem.
Kim also highlights the bonds between pleasure and pain. Early on, the husband's research brings up stories of failed transplants, forcing him to look elsewhere. He finds a strange article suggesting that the entire body is a sexual organ, and enough pain stimulation can be indistinguishable from sexual pleasure. He tests this theory by getting rocks and rubbing them on his bare skin until bleeding gashes appear, which brings him to orgasm. He then passes the information along to his son. Each climax is shattered seconds later by the return to consciousness of the horrible wound, a fairly straightforward metaphor for the cultural shame surrounding sex in Korea (and many parts of America, for that matter). Although their relationship is deeply unusual, the father and son actually bond over their pursuit of these basic desires -- at one point, the father brings in medicinal alcohol and bandages after his son is finished with the rock.
Many will interpret Moebius as a dark comedy, especially as the son moves onto a new kind of pain as a gateway to sexual pleasure, one that provides an even more blatant visual metaphor. It's topped shortly after by a scene where the grocer confronts a rapist with the son present, in one of the film's most outrageous scenes. The shame multiplies as the film moves into the home stretch, when the wife returns and discovers the father has done what she failed to do. The father becomes jealous of the son over his own genitals. The sensation of guilt and anger bends back on itself, just as the title suggests. The inclination is to see a film about such twisted people as a criticism, but the most resonant take away from the film is that sense of sympathy and compassion for the complicated nature of human sexual desire. At its heart, intimacy is a call for understanding. Moebius is simultaneously a wildly unique tale of depravity, and a universal story of desire.
RAM Releasing doesn't stray from the pre-existing poster artwork of Eun-woo Lee sitting seductively in front of an eye-catching red backdrop of horrors, with the title emblazoned in front of her as if on a neon sign. The single-disc release comes in a cheap DVD case, and there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a "Korean" Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, this is a pretty disappointing standard-definition release. From nearly the very first shot and continuing throughout the film, aliasing is a noticeable issue, with a distinct stair-step pattern appearing along most edges. White levels appear slightly burnt out if the source is bright enough, with dark edge haloes appearing around it, a distinctly digital-looking artifact. During dark scenes (which are numerous), discolored artifacts swarm about in the murky shadows, with little to no "true black" richness ever noticeable. Colors appear fine but not particularly rich or vibrant and fine detail fluctuates, with some shots appearing soft and others revealing a fair amount of skin texture and hair. The image also seems unusually affected by jitter, which gets very obnoxious pretty quickly. The stereo soundtrack -- technically the film's original language, although no language is present, is probably good enough for a dialogue-free domestic drama (as crazy as it is), but there's a touch of flatness to the disc's mix that is disappointing. No subtitles or captions are provided.
The first extra is an interview (22:24) with Eun-woo Lee, conducted specifically for the US DVD and Blu-ray release of the movie. For some reason, the interview is presented in the old-fashioned dubbing style, with Lee's actual comments in Korean a muted backdrop for the English voice-over, as opposed to subtitles. It makes me wonder about the subtleties of the translation, as Eun-woo's answers seem simplified, and both the questions and answers are a tad repetitive. She does talk at length about working with Ki-Duk Kim, explaining what the script was like when she received it and when he speaks to the actors about their characters. She also alludes to the shoot being very short, having worked on it for only four days. Her interview is supplemented by a featurette (6:07) comprised of interviews with Kim, Jo, Seo, and Lee. This is a more generic, EPK-style featurette with clips and quick cutting, so it's also light on insight. There is also a shorter, somewhat better featurette (3:00) with only Ki-Duk.
The disc rounds out with a post-screening Q&A (26:59) with Lee. It's a bit quiet, and is being translated live on stage, so it's a bit complicated, but the answers feel a bit richer and more vivid than the ones in the interview, with the translator (and better questions) allowing for more nuanced thoughts on the character and experience of working on the film. She covers many of the same topics, including the process of working with Kim, her thematic interpretation of the lack of dialogue, the accelerated production (here she specifies -- the entire film was shot in a week), and what she hopes audiences take away from the movie, but she goes into a bit more detail -- be sure to stick it out through a somewhat awkward section of audience questions for her answers.
Certainly, Moebius is not a film that will be to everyone's taste, but anyone not willing to dive down Kim's sexual rabbit hole will probably be able to figure that out just from the synopsis. For everyone else, the film is recommended, but this underwhelming DVD is a rental at best -- there's a Blu-ray counterpart that hopefully offers better picture and sound quality.
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