South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk crafts viscerally violent films about heartache, like Ag-o (Crocodile) and Seom (The Isle), but he also has woven lyrical meditations on existence and dysfunctional love: Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring) and the latest to reach our shores, Bin-jip (3-Iron). I talked with Kim Ki-duk (through an interpreter) at San Francisco's Warwick Regis Hotel on April 21, 2005.
Groucho: You've talked about how your films are partly an investigation of yourself. What did 3-Iron help you to understand about yourself, or what do you think it will teach audiences about you?
Kim Ki-duk: There are different kinds of films. I think there are films that really portray some people as bad—bad people who must be abolished from society and must be cast away. And at the other end you have the sort of sentimental human dramas that focus either on love stories or some sort of sentimentalism. And I do feel that those other kinds of films are necessary in their own way, but what I'm more interested in is sort of the existential questions of what is life and what is a human being and what is the meaning of all this? The question that I explore in 3-Iron, as well as Spring, Summer, is in some ways about this world we occupy and whether it's real or not and how we can actually understand what we're doing here. And by no means am I presenting any answer as a right answer of any kind, but rather really raising a set of questions that the audience can debate in some way. I do believe that there are different points of view that are just as valid as mine.
G: You're a filmmaker very receptive to ideas in the world around you. Can you explain how you got the idea for this film?
KK-d: In some ways the first idea, the initial idea, for the film was simple. I saw a flyer—an advertisement—covering my keyhole, and I realized I would have to remove it in order to insert my key in the lock. And I thought this could be one way a thief could figure out which house has remained vacant for a long time. So it began with sort of a simple idea. But as I started making this film, I wanted to also explore the idea of haunting, and a ghostlike presence in some ways—something that borders—that's in-between existence and non-existence—an exercise in invisibility. And I really wanted to explore this idea of human line of vision, of perspective, as in 180 degrees—and whether one could actually stand outside that line of vision to remain invisible.
G: Related to that idea, the resolution of the movie is open to interpretation. But two people unite to face the world in the movie. Do you see their romance as an escape, a redemption, or maybe both?
KK-d: I try very hard not to portray anybody as a bad guy—not even the husband. The overarching theme—especially the theme embodied in the resolution is one of coexistence. If you think about it, if they were to escape, that would exclude the husband. They would go someplace where the husband would not be around. But this sort of intervening and coexistence with the husband still there really portrays the possibilities that the three people can arrive at an understanding of each other. So there's no winner. There's no loser. And their lives would continue and, at some point, change—but I'm not about to say how.
G: For the benefit of American audiences, I want to discuss how the film may reflect today's Korea. Is Tae-suk emblematic of the many young people who have no welcome place in society?
KK-d: No, absolutely not. I don't see this film as a social criticism at all. It may reflect certain patterns in housing and explore themes of home. But especially beginning with the prison scenes, this is—I really see the film in a fantastic realm. So, no, even in Korea I see this is not a film about Korean society at all. I feel that this film could have easily been made in any other city, whether it is New York, L.A. or San Francisco. So, for instance, if there was a well-known star, an American star in this film, a more American audience might have seen something like this. Because I think it is not a difficult story to follow, and it's very accessible, and I think it is interesting.
G: In this film, as in other films, did you eliminate dialogue, or did you set out from the beginning not to have much dialogue?
KK-d: When I first wrote this narrative, there was dialogue throughout it. During production, I eliminated more and more. In post production, I just kept the very few words that remain. But even without words, I do believe there is much—there's a lot of dialogue. Laughter and crying, for instance, are I think important elements of dialogue in this film.
G: Also, in this film, it seemed like the lack of dialogue, or the silence, became an important part of the story. The characters rebel and sometimes maybe even self-destruct by choosing not to speak. Are words sort of useless to the characters?
KK-d: It's not necessarily that the characters don't need words to communicate, but really it's a strategy to force the audience to fill in the blanks themselves. So in some ways they insert sort of their own dialogue throughout the film: imagining what they would say—imagining what might be said when there is silence in the film.
G: In your films, the world can be overwhelming to the individual. And maybe the characters are trying to see what outside of their frame of vision. And your job is to put the world into a frame. So I'm curious how you see that. Do your films resemble your paintings at all, or how do you see your visual sense?
KK-d: It's very metaphysical. I think a worldview consists of individual orientations and individual perspectives, and if you lump it together, that constitutes sort of a collective worldview. But I do believe that every individual has a worldview of their own, even if they had some perspectives in common with other individuals. In many ways, the world is not outside of oneself, but really the world containing one's own internal worldview. And so it's really internal turmoil that people are struggling against. And I think in my films, too, it's really the struggle against self. That's the fight against the world. In Sun-hwa and Tae-suk's characters, for instance, each other is a figment of each other's imagination and fantasy; one could read it that way. To the husband, both of them could actually be figments of his imagination—his fantasy. So what is real and what constitutes the world really depend on who you are talking about.
G: How do you cast your films, and what's important to you in an actor?
KK-d: I prefer actors with not much or no acting experience. Part of it is that I think they add almost a documentary feel to it—kind of like a realistic element. It's not always, but generally.
G: What happened in Paris to turn you from other possible careers to art, and what convinced you to take a further step to film specifically?
KK-d: I've always enjoyed storytelling and crafting a story. But because I didn't go to college, I never thought one could be a writer or a film director without attending college. When I was in Paris, I realized that there were many people without formal educational training who can do it and who, in fact, do do it. So when I returned to Korea, I started writing a scenario thinking that perhaps I could try it.
G: Do you play golf?
KK-d: A little.
G: Does it give you an outlet for anger or does it cause more anger?
KK-d: (Smiles.) No matter how well you play, it's both infuriating and at the same time a great stress relief. You never know how you are going to hit a ball, and it changes from one to the next. A lot of people dismiss golf as sort of the bourgeoisie wealthy people's sport, but I do believe there is a bit of a meditative and philosophical quality about it. For one, if you try to do well, you won't do well. You must empty your mind in order to play golf.
G: You are a very prolific filmmaker. Do you anticipate your vision outgrowing your usual budget in the future?
KK-D: You don't know. I can't predict the future, so I don't know if it would happen, but I do want to create a film with a small budget, but reaching as many people as possible—I do want to make a low-budget blockbuster in some way.
G: What is the most satisfactory response you've received to a film from an individual?
KK-D: That wasn't 3-Iron yet, but was Spring, Summer—I showed it at the Lincoln Center not too long ago. And there was a woman well into her eighties—a very pale white American woman who stayed long after the screening and didn't leave and asked and begged the staff if she could please meet the director so she could hold his hand. And when we met, she thanked me for letting her see such a wonderful film before she died. So I thanked her back.
G: Lastly, your goal is truthfulness—perhaps a bit more with each film, from my perspective. You show glimmers of hope, if only in the spiritual realm. Can you talk about this tension of darkness and hope? And do you see a progression?
KK-D: I think you've described it right on the mark. I do think that my films grapple with this tension between lightness and darkness, sorrow and hope. And I try to make my films honestly without fancy camera-work—not using a whole lot of professional actors. And not resorting to the kind of deliberate, manipulation of people's emotion and that sort of thing. But it's beyond just making a happy film or a light film. This is sort of a kind of general philosophy of mine, but it's this idea that the colors of black and white are actually the same color. You can only explain black by pointing to what's white. You can only explain white by pointing to what's black. And it's the mutual existence—it's the coexistence of black and white that define each other and make my films sort of reflect that theme.