Korean director Kim Ki-Duck, known for creating visceral and often visually stunning movies with far reaching subjects that are more often than not beloved by critics for their strong vision and powerful themes, here present us with Arirang a documentary following a period of creative stagnation and self-imposed isolation.
Arirang is an enigma of sorts, on the one hand it is an (apparently) honest and raw exploration of one man’s mental breakdown, and on the other it is an often boring, self-indulgent ‘film’ that blurs the line between documentary and drama. Kim Ki-Duck explains it during one of many conversations with himself (literally, since he plays both parts of the back and forth), but it does bear explaining in this review; during the filming of his 2008 movie Dream one of the cast was nearly killed in an accident while filming a hanging scene, and while his films (15 in total at that point) had previously featured plenty of dark and troubling moments the true horror of what could have potentially befallen one of his actors truly took hold of Kim and led to a period of self-doubt and instability causing a 3 year isolation and solitude in a remote cabin. Because of his strong attachment to cinema, even though he had retreated from the world of film production, he couldn’t actually stop making movies the result of which is this self-made ‘documentary’.
The footage is raw, static with the occasional hand held shots, depicting his everyday life and interspersed with scenes of direct interaction to the camera, or direct interaction with himself where one aspect of his character will attack, question, or criticise the part of him that seems to have retreated away from the world. In many ways it’s difficult to clarify Arirang, how much of it is a true and accurate portrayal of Kim Ki-Duk’s minds workings and how much of it is merely played up for the camera is essentially impossible to determine – he himself states more than once he’s not sure if this is an honest document. For a man so deeply rooted in cinema it seems like the most logical form of therapy to make a movie from his mental demons, and for anyone interested in the inner workings of cinema Arirang will no doubt be of some interest. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy watching, it’s singular location and subject are at times arrestingly dull.
It’s difficult to pin down who the audience for this movie is, it wouldn’t be shocking to see it playing in art galleries alongside other works exploring the self, indeed having sat and watched similarly long introspective or surreal films in galleries by artists like Sophie Calle or Matthew Barney I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I came across Arirang in that setting. But that’s not Kim’s world, he creates works that are viewed in cinemas, beautiful and harrowing films like Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, and so Arirang exists in that context – but presumably appealing to far less of his usual demographic. The drama vs. documentary aspect of the film is highlighted most succinctly in the somewhat over the top final sequence, which almost derails any sense of realism, but since even the most sincere of documentaries are arguably subject to the filmmakers perspective the artistic licence of Kim as a story teller was bound to come through, if even in such a tongue in cheek manner.
Self-indulgent, definitely. Honest, quite possibly. An artistic exploration of self? Certainly. Arirang will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is enough intrigue in its premise and its delivery that quite a few will take something away with them after watching it – certainly fans of Kim Ki-Duk will want to check it out, if only to be amused at how crazy he actually is.
After it’s limited cinema run this summer, Arirang will be available later in the year through Terracotta Distribution.