The first 15 minutes of Moebius, the latest taboo-exploding effort from South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, sets the stage for the carnival of perversity that follows. A father (Cho Jae-hyun) in a suburban home receives a call on his mobile. His wife (Lee Eun-woo), a wino with caked-on makeup (think: soap opera star) senses it’s his mistress and a bizarre wrestling match over the phone ensues. All this childishness happens in front of their son (Seo Young-ju), who’s seated at the family breakfast table eating his cereal, and sporting his school uniform.
That evening, the son and mother both witness the father having sex with his much-younger mistress (also played by Eun-woo, who looks dramatically different) in the back of the family vehicle. When they get back to the house, she catches her son masturbating to the episode, so she removes a rusty blade hidden under a Buddha head statue, goes to her sleeping husband, and attempts to castrate him—but he catches her right before she goes all Lorena Bobbitt. So, she heads over to the room where their son is sleeping and, with tears streaming down her face, castrates him… and then eats it.
And this is just the appetizer to Kim’s sadistic smorgasbord. Later, the father has his phallus surgically removed and begins investigating penile transplants so that he can affix his member to his son. The castrated kid, meanwhile, joins his foul friends in a gang rape of the mistress in the back room of her local grocery, and the group of teens is sent to prison. While he’s locked up, the father discovers that castrated people can bring themselves to orgasm through self-abrasion, so he begins chafing his feet and arms with rocks. And, ever the good father, he passes the knowledge along to his sexually frustrated son who, once he’s released from the slammer, sparks up a strange relationship with the mistress—finding pleasure by stabbing himself in the shoulder with a knife whilst fondling her breasts. Things really get incestuous, however, when the delirious mother returns.
Kim’s film is, apparently, a not-so-veiled commentary on Freudian castration anxiety and the phallic stage of development, as well as a critique of Korean men’s subjugation of women and the lack of communication within bourgeois nuclear families, since the film is dialogue-free and the characters go unnamed. It’s also intended to be a black comedy—however crazy that sounds; an examination of the demented places our minds can take us when under severe emotional distress.
While the vérité-style cinematography of Moebius—courtesy of a shaky, handheld camera—leaves much to be desired, the muted, expressive performances of the game actors help elevate the chaotic, hyperbolic proceedings to an Oedipal tragedy of silence that, by its final act, will leave you chuckling against your better judgment.
She heads over to the room where their son is sleeping and, with tears streaming down her face, castrates him… and then eats it.
Moebius premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, and hit theaters stateside on August 15. It was initially banned in its native South Korea before a commission overturned the ruling. Kim, the 53-year-old, ponytailed art house provocateur, comes off as a cross between the corporal films of the New French Extremity (see: Breillat, Noé, etc.) and the Manga-infused social commentaries of Miike; a Dadaist intent on challenging his viewers’ moral compasses.
The rabble-rouser also has a preoccupation with mute women who find themselves terrorized by feral, sadistic men.
Kim’s 1996 directorial debut, Crocodile, told the tale of a menacing criminal who saves a beautiful young woman from committing suicide by jumping into Seoul’s Han River. But you soon learn it’s no act of chivalry. He’s saved the woman only to repeatedly rape her, and the woman is so beaten down by the world that she decides to stay with her “savior” and his two homeless pals, forming a bizarre family unit.
The Isle, released in 2000, included a number of disturbing scenes that induced some viewers at the Venice Film Festival to literally lose their lunch, including one where a woman stuffs fishhooks into her vagina and jumps into the water in a suicide attempt, and others in which live frogs and fish are skinned and mutilated onscreen.
“It’s very understandable from a Korean point of view,” Kim told Monsters and Critics of the controversy surrounding The Isle. “Right now, just the mere appearance of a prostitute in a movie is frowned upon. I believe Korean society needs to improve and develop its ability to have a discourse about individuals and even life itself.”
His star actress Lee Na-young almost died while shooting a suicide-by-hanging scene in his 2008 film Dream. This incident sent Kim into a deep depression, and the result was Arirang, a remarkably self-indulgent experiential film which the actor wrote, produced, directed, and starred in as all three characters—an interviewer, an interviewee, and a shadow. It was an arthouse therapy session of sorts, where the controversial filmmaker called out his detractors and frenemies, and opined about the stage of Korean cinema.
Pieta, which premiered to critical raves at the 2012 Venice International Film Festival, followed an emotionless, lonely loan shark that stumbles upon a middle-aged woman who claims she’s his estranged mother. In one scene, after feeding her a piece of flesh that he’s carved out of his thigh, the gangster-son shoves his fist into his mother’s vagina, screaming, “I came out of here for sure? Then why can’t I go back in? I will go back in!” Afterwards, she gives him a handjob to calm his nerves, and the saintly stranger eventually transforms the hardened criminal into a softie. The delightfully perverse critique of Catholicism and capitalism was made on a shoestring budget, and won the fest’s Golden Lion over Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. That year’s jury president Michael Mann said Pieta “seduced you viscerally.”
“I am not trying to earn money with my films,” Kim remarked at the festival’s press conference. “I shot Pieta with the equivalent of $100,000… My aim is to take the temperature of the world from time to time.”