2007Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Seong Hyeon-a, Park Ji-Yeon
h, it’s decried, declared, and decreed by all the worldly cognoscenti locals that bourgeoning South Korean Cinema is the finest this Earth bears—at least, for anyone who cares about human nature. First, there’s Park Chan-Wook, whose morally repulsive kitsch understands that psychopathic killers are mopish losers too, and then there’s his antithesis, Hong Sang-Soo, whose drably filmed long shots of equally drab characters thankfully lack Park’s smug slickness; Hong’s characters, at least, never arrive at the satisfaction they certainly don’t deserve. A fang-toothed Tarantino and a shoestring Rohmer, both of these clever festival-favorites build their films on emotionally disconnected protagonists, and more importantly, on gimmicks—narrative in Park, and structural in Hong.
So wherefore Kim Ki-Duk, gag-fanatic jester king, whose reputation was sullied by an incoherent rant by Tony Rayns in Film Comment over two years ago? Lee Chang-dong’s much lauded Secret Sunshine awaits, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is as American as a foreign film can get (down to its anti-American imperialism jabs), and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, though it does attempt pathos out of fart jokes, is from Thailand, and not South Korea at all. So for now, anyway, none of them can compete with the Kim, the holy fool, who can still take his desired place in his country’s gimmicky cinema: in the land of mediocrity, the idiot is king. Or should be.
Witness Time (if necessary), a film mercifully unencumbered by legitimate notions of taste, intelligence, or legitimacy. Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) has a jealous girlfriend (Park Ji-Yeon) spitting insults at whatever woman’s around, and, failing that, at Ji-woo himself; needless to say, he can only get it up when she tells him to think of someone else. At which point, she decides to become someone else (Seong Hyeon-a, to be exact) without telling him, and undergoes plastic surgery while he sleeps around with a number of the many beautiful girls date-raping him wherever he goes; but while she wants to preserve the relationship by changing herself, when she emerges six months later, it turns out that he hasn’t changed at all, that he’s still in love with the old girl she used to be.
At which point there’s still 40 minutes left, so what the hell, he decides to get the plastic surgery while she waits around for six months (after all the whole movie’s based on doubling, why not), since, after all, they have nothing better to do but change identities anyway; there is—with the exception of a few party scenes of drunken bros yelling with genuine curiosity, “Who wants to fuck these girls?” —almost no hint of the other parts of the past they’re discarding.
Luckily, his unannounced surgery arrives with the consolation twist that, since admirable women in movies aren’t ever as promiscuous as men, she’s only trying to sleep with dudes because she thinks they might be him; and of course the bit’s a nice little concoction of love and paranoia, in which, like a porno Ratatouille, anyone could turn out to be her true love. She just has to figure out who.
A parable (it’s always best to just be yourself, no matter how obnoxious a piece of shit you are), an allegory of aging (there’s no going back), and a sweet inversion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (in which everyone’s the same but looks different), Time doesn’t really make any sense (Couldn’t they recognize each other’s voices? Why are they such different people when they change faces? Why exactly does Ji-woo get surgery? How could this help their relationship?), but depends on momentum entirely for its success.
As 3-Iron proved, Kim’s gags are better appreciated as momentary ideas than lasting experiences, but thankfully Time has enough to dispose of them furiously, from the double doors to the plastic surgery center that feature a half of a different face on each, to an endless melodramatic piano ballad that keeps fumbling through the fights and discussions and sex scenes of the first ten minutes, to a girl needlessly slapping a dude in his sleep, to the same girl crying out of a mask, to that girl now found sitting on a statue in the middle of the ocean (completely dry herself), to a montage of Ji-woo pondering his life that ends with him on the toilet, head bowed down in silhouette. There’s little time to be spared on technique.
Kim is clearly as lunatic and relentless as his characters (in any scene not directly relating to plastic surgery, the characters immediately find a way to bring it up), and certainly Time’s just a stupid series of what-ifs hammered down the audience’s throats every second—suck on this, world! That Obscure Object of Desire it’s not, though the frequent comparisons to Vertigo may be in order as Ji-woo obsessively returns to the location where he and his ex took pictures of him posing in front of a sculpture that made it look like he was getting his cock bitten off by a dog.
A possibly deliberate attack on the nouveau riche and any other believers in good taste, Time bursts bourgeois ethics open with hints that it’s moral transformation that’s really needed. It’s a superhero film, really, subverting the typical theme of an average everyman who’s been physically transformed in a terrible accident seeking revenge on those responsible, by now making the anti-hero creeps enact the transformations themselves. But at only a chuckle-a-minute, it’s well behind the masterpiece of the genre: Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger.
Time is currently in limited release.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-07-23