The Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) may be in its infancy being in its third year, but the program certainly suggests otherwise. A wonderfully diverse selection of the best Korea has to offer now, and undeniable classics - films that cater to anyone's taste from the prolific Kim Ki-Duk to the mega blockbuster hits, this assured selection of films is guaranteed to satisfy any filmgoer.
Kim Ki-Duk has made a documentary (or is it a drama?) one man and a camera, isolated in a cabin surrounded by utter stillness, and yet there is so much sound, from the daily rigours presented in montage of Kim eating, sleeping, cleaning and grooming himself. It is quickly revealed that he sleeps in a tent, inside the cabin, an allusion to the insular nature of his current state of mind. Regardless of how you see Arirang, it is undeniably an account of a director in a flux. How much of it is genuine cannot really be determined, Kim himself suggests these feelings may not be real when he later comments on videos of his previous confessions.
For 110 minutes this docu-drama hybrid is set firmly in this cabin, surrounded by relics from Kim's past. Paintings he did in Paris, film posters and items he has created himself such as the coffee machine which he never stops using. Extreme close-ups of Kim's head amidst basic lighting as day turns to night is the majority of what you will see in Arirang as he films himself and refers to himself in 3rd person. The strange tech chatter of the camera is heard throughout, further indicating the non-fictional and raw nature of this document. It would be a fair assumption to call Arirang a pretentious narcissistic vanity project, but if you are familiar with this genius and his body of work, this simple exercise proves to be so much more than that.
Firstly, there is no pretention or vanity, Kim tells it like it is and there is an art in his simplicity as he clearly explains everything, often barking at the camera, but there is so much confidence and gusto that it is hard to disagree with him. He interrogates himself questioning his current state; this can be attributed to his last directorial effort Dream (Bi-mong) where an accident on set almost caused a death. We are led to believe he more or less shut down after this, stopped making films and secluded himself to reset, in which the ending of Arirang certainly suggests. It is a really candid account of his feelings and opinions on the film industry and himself, sometimes uncomfortably so and as he bears his soul you can't help but wonder why he is sharing this with the audience. Included in his discussion are some curious and ultimately humorous moments including breaking down acting and the obviousness of it. He seems spiteful when discussing villain roles, memorably he quips "don't be proud of being such a good evil actor, it means you're evil in real life!" He also runs through a synopsis of a film not yet made, the camera focuses on him typing it up, this made me yearn for a new feature film from him, and luckily Pieta is on the horizon!
Outside of musing on the film industry he gets liquored up and croons to himself, there is an undeniable melancholy here and a true sadness as he admits that he wants to go back to when his films were better, citing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (also playing at KOFFIA). He has a conversation with his shadow which is admittedly a little on the nose, but still quite insightful, and finally he muses of Arirang, a song that Koreans sing when they feel sad, or to feel sad, and there are indeed real tears from Kim.
Do not be fooled however, this is a Kim Ki-duk production and this is established when he begins to deconstruct the deconstruction. Immediately after he cries the camera switches to him watching himself cry. He laughs "it's so hilarious" he says. The ending of Arirang is also fittingly brilliant and confirms this auteur's incredible presence - things get very strange when he builds a handgun.
Arirang is probably not for everyone, but even if you aren't enamoured by Kim's works I can still recommend it for the undeniable attention it commands. Simply gaining access to a master's way of thinking should be enough reason to see this compelling account of a man grappling with his identity.
Arirang is playing at KOFFIA, details are:
Don't despair if you live in Melbourne! It is also playing as part of the Melbourne Festival, details here.