Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Writer: Kim Ki-Duk
Producer: Kim Ki-Duk, Kim Woo-Taek, Kim Soon-Mo
Cast: Cho Jae-Hyu, Seo Young-Joo, Lee Eun-Woo, Lee Eun-Woo, Kim Jae-Rok and Kim Jae-Hong
Running Time: 88 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Kim Ki-duk has remained one of Korea’s most discussed and controversial directors over the last 15 years. His movies usually portray the dark side of human nature with tales dictated by the sex and violence that permeates through them, often taking on subject matter even the most open minded individual would shy away from.
Ki-duk cranked out a movie every year since his debut with Crocodile in 1996, sometimes even two, however things took an unexpected turn for the worse in 2008 when, while filming Dream, actress Lee Na-young nearly died while filming a scene in which she had to hang herself. On top of this, the distributor for the movie which he wrote and produced, Rough Cut, went bankrupt, which resulted in him not making a single dollar from it.
The combination of his guilt over Na-young’s near death combined with the unexpected blow to his finances sent Ki-duk into a 3 year exile. It was an exile which he wouldn’t return from until 2011, with the autobiographical piece Arirang, a documentary in which Ki-duk plays both the interviewer and interviewee, holed up by himself in a log cabin, in his own attempt to come to terms with the time that had passed. Arirang must have served its purpose, because in 2012 he returned with Pieta, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival of the same year, a brutal work which follows a ruthless debt collector who is visited by a mysterious woman claiming to be his mother, who abandoned him as a child.
In 2013 Ki-duk followed up Pieta with Moebius, and even before the movie was given a release date, it seemed that the controversy which he became known for with movies like The Isle and Samaria was back front and center. Upon submitting the movie to the Korea Media Ratings Board, it was given a ‘Restricted’ rating for harmful content. While a movie being given an R rating in the US is not such a big deal, in Korea only specific cinemas can show ‘Restricted’ movies, and at the time of writing there are currently none in the whole country, which effectively made it banned on its home soil. Ki-duk found himself in a dilemma, and in interviews openly expressed that he’d do whatever it takes to get the movie released, not least because the cast and crew would only get paid based on the returns the movie received.
In July 2013, Ki-duk wrote a letter to the board in which he explained how the scenes that were being described as harmful played an essential part of the story, and that in the context of which they’re taking place, make sense. In the letter he explained that if the board still refused to tone down the rating, he would pay the cast and crew himself. While it was never made clear if the second time he re-submitted the movie there were any changes or cuts made to it, the presumption is that it remains the original version, and it appears that Ki-duk must have quite a way with words, as Moebius was indeed granted a release domestically.
So, with all this drama playing out behind the scenes, what of the actual movie itself? The plot of Moebius will probably be enough to turn a lot of people off from the word go. It revolves around the family unit of a father, mother, and son. When the mother captures the father cheating on her one evening, something she’d long suspected, enraged she storms into the bedroom where the father is sleeping and tried to castrate him with a knife. He wakes up just in time to foil her attempt, but while he’s recovering from the (understandable) shock, the still enraged mother barges into the son’s bedroom, and castrates him instead. This is all within the first 15 minutes, and really to say anything more about the remaining 75 would be to spoil the experience.
Another crucial thing to mention about Moebius is that it doesn’t contain a single line of dialogue, there’s not a single word spoken during the whole run time. This may sound remarkably grim and depressing, and there’s no doubt that it is, however Ki-duk seems to realise this, and by putting the most shocking events that take place in the first 15 minutes, the rest of the movie takes us into some surprising, and sometimes even touching, situations. For me Ki-duk’s movies are to a degree hit and miss, when he gets it right his movies are remarkably effecting and unsettling, but on more than one occasion I’ve been of the opinion that he can be rather clumsy when it comes to characters dialogue and interactions with each other. He’s a director that works best when he’s using symbolism, and it should come as no surprise that many consider another one of his best movies to also have minimum dialogue, 2004’s 3-Iron.
So to some extent, Moebius represents Ki-duk embracing his strengths in a way he never has before, by doing away with dialogue all together. It’s amazing then, that while watching the movie this isn’t an issue at all, and in fact it’s one of the contributing factors to the brilliance of Moebius, while never being a gimmick or a distraction. The characters interactions with each other, driven by expressions and glances along with the situations which unfold, all happen naturally, and there’s never any scene which feels like words are needed. Remarkably for a Ki-duk movie, and even more so for the subject matter being dealt with, there’s also a degree of black humor running through various scenes. Despite the desperation of the situation, you can’t help but smile at the scenes when the bond between father and son seems to be growing stronger while they browse through penis transplant websites together. It’s absurd, and it’s that absurdity which the movie doesn’t shy away from which makes it such an achievement.
The two actors and actress who make up the main characters of Moebius deserve kudos for their amazing performances. Jo Jae-hyeon as the father is a world away from his role as the father in 2010’s Thai-Korean co-production The Kick. Jae-hyeon frequently collaborated with Ki-duk on his early movies, however this is the first time they’ve worked together since 2002’s Bad Guy. Lee Eun-woo deserves special mention as she not only plays the mother, but she also plays the part of the woman whom the father is having an affair with, and goes on to play a significant character in the story. She is amazing here, coming across as both dangerous and vulnerable, and Moebius is worth a recommendation for her performance alone. It’s Seo Yeong-joo as the son who steals the show though, after capturing people’s attention in 2012’s Juvenile Offender, here he really makes his mark, and delivers an entirely believable, and very brave, performance, all being just 16 years old.
While the subject matter may put a lot of people off Moebius, it would be a shame because it means they would be missing an amazing movie. There is much more going on than just sex and violence here, which no doubt there is a lot of, but to go into it in any detail is a conversation best saved for after viewing rather than before. It’s best to say that rest assured, Ki-duk has created what is arguably his best movie to date in my opinion, and one that is worth watching by anyone who class themselves as a fan of cinema.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10