The work of Kim Ki-duk has been contentious for many reasons over the years, with the rampant misogyny that permeates his films being a particular bone of contention amongst critics. His most recent outing doesn't so much add fuel to that fire as drop a bomb on it. Featuring rape at almost every turn, Human, Space, Time and Human is what happens when you feed an ego and allow its pathological violence to go unchecked for two decades. Savage chauvinism aside, Kim's latest is also a puerile and repetitive film from a voice that has long since given up trying to say anything worthwhile.
A hodgepodge of travelers (mostly Korean, some Japanese, all of whom can speak in their own tongues without the need for interpretation) take to the seas in a rusty warship, their purpose and destination unknown. Social factions form and, before the night is out, a trio of prostitutes engage in two gang bangs, while the other two women on board are subjected to separate gang rapes, after which one of them is raped again, on no less than three occasions. At this point, we are about 25 minutes into the film.
Following this rape-fueled bacchanal, the travelers awake to find their boat floating in the sky, which spawns a new chain of command as food grows increasingly scarce. The poor Japanese woman eventually falls in line with one of her rapists and continues to support him while he continues to rape her. At one point she even cuts off her own flesh to feed him.
Each sexual encounter is also observed silently by a wise old man, dressed in the same style of robes favored by Kim Ki-duk. After being raped by seven people and losing her boyfriend, the Japanese woman tries to kill herself, but this Kim stand-in 'saves' her by putting her in a headlock until she falls unconscious, so she may live to see another rape.
Over the past few days, many people have expressed their shock at the serious allegations of sexual misconduct that have been leveled against the famed Korean auteur. Yet these new revelations, though eye-opening in their details, have met with far less surprise at home, where his work is poorly regarded and his reputation has been dogged by rumors of impropriety for years.
It's a different case overseas, where Kim has met with great acclaim, despite projecting his misogynistic viewpoint on screen time and again. He's one of only two Korean filmmakers to have won awards at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice Film Festivals (the other is Park Chan-wook) and indeed his newest work, despite the claims of misconduct that hit the wires last year, saw the filmmaker invited back to the Berlinale.
Human, Space, Time and Human presents itself as a biting social commentary, but Kim's shallow and facile treatment of his themes, stitched together with cheap symbolism and slapdash staging, add up to an inconsequential film of dubious artistic merit. It's far more effective as a portrait of a disturbed mind and serves as an unintentional quasi-documentary of what life must be like on the set of a Kim Ki-duk film, if recent reports are to be believed.
It's easy to dismiss Kim's latest, but we may find an uncomfortable truth in the answer to a question we should all ask ourselves. Who gave Kim Ki-duk the power he so clearly abuses? Though I have disliked most of his recent output, as a fan of his early work I must count myself among those responsible.
Frankly I'm scared to go back and rewatch the films of his I did like back in the day. Also, I recall with some shame being the only foreign journalist at the poorly attended Seoul press screening of Moebius back in 2013, and laughing out loud on several occasions. Now we know just how closely Kim's art hews to his conduct in real life, which makes Human, Space, Time and Human something of a conceptual horror, as we imagine what must have happened once the cameras were turned off.