Kim Ki-duk has shocked many a festival/arthouse audience over the years, ever since he used fishhooks to terrible effect in The Isle (2000). Watching his films can be an uncomfortable experience and while he has perhaps gone overboard in the past, he's never been outrageous just for the sake of it. Spectators, for their part, have steadily become more drawn to his works. With his new feature Moebius, never has he so deliberately sought to shock them. His message, framed in a terrifying and morbidly humorous narrative that recalls the tropes and themes of Greek tragedy, is clearer than it's ever been. It's also never been quite this powerful.
A woman catches her husband cheating and in a fit rage brings a knife into his bedroom, slips under the covers and tries to castrate him. He awakes and thwarts her impetuous plot but still wracked with anger she then visits her teenage son's room and dismembers him instead.
The above plays out over mere minutes but to say any more about the events that unfold would only dilute its impact. Safe to say, things only get worse and more bizarre as the film's protagonists are pushed to delirious extremes. It's not exactly a restaging of the Oedipal Complex (though some of its elements are evident) but it does borrow a lot from Greek tragedy, though it's a bit more extreme than what you would find in the Classics.
Kim is known for his mute characters and many of his films feature large tracts of silence. But presenting an entire feature without a single word spoken (though plenty of screaming to fill in that vacuum) has the potential of coming off as a gimmick and consequently disinvesting an attentive audience. Remarkably, even knowing this ahead of time does nothing to detract from the experience. It feels natural and it never draws undue attention to itself. What's more, it makes perfect sense: Moebius is raw and powerful and the absence of dialogue only reinforces its elemental nature.
Though it takes place in and thoroughly castigates Korean society, the insecurities and moral quandaries it depicts, or perhaps the failure of the human race, go far beyond the local sphere. In Kim's film, sexual desire only leads to pain. An act of infidelity results in a terrible consequence that leads to a series of more disastrous outcomes. A father's act leads to his son's castration and his guilt prompts him to seek out ways to give his son the chance to experience sexual pleasure anew. Sex (and the masculine identity it is tied with) supersedes the need for procreation, even if its pursuit is dark and filled with pain.
Sexual violence, particularly as it relates to private 'safe' locations like homes and schools, has long been a trope in Korean film but the last few years have yielded an abundance of difficult narratives that have gone further and been bolder than what has come before. Some have been good (Fatal), and most have been well intentioned but poorly conceived (Azooma, Dirty Blood, Don't Cry Mommy) but all have been literal and unsubtle. Moebius, while as subtle as a hammer to the head, is perhaps the most effective of these recent exhumations of some very dark aspects of Korean society. Those that have remained buried under Park Chung-hee's economic miracle of the 1970s, the consumerist gloss of modern day Seoul and everything in between. Filled with rage and confusion, the characters in Kim's world amble about imperiously, unable to do anything but hurt one another. It's a grim experience but one that isn't too self-serious.
Each member of Kim's small cast is called on to enact some rather shocking events and what's more without the use of dialogue. Cho Jae-hyun is no stranger to this kind of role, having already starred in some early Kim films, not to mention other subdued roles in last year's The Weight and El Condor Pasa. He's in his element here as Kim seems to know exactly what to do with him, rarely has he been better. Lee Eun-woo makes a big impression in her first significant appearance as she takes on the parts of both the wife and the mistress (which itself adds a number of insidious levels to the relationships within the film). But the real revelation here is Seo Joung-joo, the 15-year-old actor who made big waves in last year's Juvenile Offender. His brave performance here singles him out as a major talent to watch.
Make no mistake about it, Moebius is an extremely difficult film that is destined to be hated (even reviled) by many. Yet for each that detests it, others will be taken in by its sheer force. I have often been turned off by Kim's films (I wasn't terribly keen on last year's Pieta) but here, the controversial auteur has achieved something that is nothing short of remarkable: a balance between the themes he wishes to underscore, his extreme tendencies, his own dark side and the mechanics of effective storytelling. It doesn't hurt that Kim's direction finds ample humor in the macabre. A wild and courageous work from Korea's enfant terrible, Moebius is one of the most powerful experiences of the year.