South Korean director Kim Ki-duk has made 15 features in the same number of years. For his sixteenth, "Arirang," he turns the camera on himself to examine that timeline. A first-person therapy session of sorts, Kim's upfront treatise on his life's unusual trajectory is alternatively beautiful, frustrating and extraordinarily astute.
Three years have passed since Kim shot his last feature, "Dream." Recording in his cabin during January of this year, Kim faces his camera and asks, "Why can't you make films now?" He lives a simple life, surrounded by nature, with only a camcorder and his fidgety cat to keep him company. He also keeps hearing a strange knock at the door, possibly Kim's metaphor for a lingering need to address latent concerns. "I want to confess myself as a director and a human being," he says.
Initially, as Kim delves into anecdotes from his career, "Arirang" plays like a prolonged bonus DVD that could accompany one of his narrative features. He discusses the screenplay he wrote for an unrealized war epic that nearly starred Willem Dafoe, and recalls how his former assistant director Jang Hun eventually directed Kim's screenplay for "Rough Cut." Over time, however, Kim transitions from specific memories to solely professing abstract yearnings. He recalls the near-death of an actress during the shooting of "Dream," an incident that led him to consider his mortality and accept the inevitability of death.
Viewed in extreme close-up for most of running time, Kim provides his own soundtrack by routinely singing the Korean folk song "Arirang"--sometimes in a soft melodic key, other times belting it out as a mournful wail. Eventually, the tune leads him to tears, but Kim acknowledges his frailty by cutting to a shot in which he watches the weepy footage with a sober expression. "Why's this fool crying?" he asks.
Almost exclusively shot in a single room, "Arirang" uses virtually no resources to venture deep into the recesses of Kim's mind. Like Jonas Mekas by way of Werner Herzog, Kim's powerfully individualistic work eventually turns into a darkly surreal meditation on the creative process. Naturally, Kim is the best interviewer he can ask for. He questions his success, noting that he receives national medals whenever he wins awards abroad, ostensibly because he makes South Korea look good. "Makes me wonder if they actually saw my films," he says.
After establishing "Arirang" as an extended monologue, Kim toys with expectations, building on the diary film structure with several clever deviations. He records his shadow asking questions, then responds to them while watching the footage on a monitor. Later, as his depression reaches a breaking point, he indulges in a nightmarish fantasy involving murder-suicide--introducing classic tension under the most improbable conditions.
There are a few moments where Kim overindulges in his legacy, especially when he unloads montages of posters for his films and portraits of himself on set. But the filmmaker has essentially made this project critic-proof by claiming ambivalence toward its flaws. "I want to make a film," he says. "I don't care if it's boring." And he has hardly done that. In "Arirang," Kim says that he views his movies as "a way of communication," although it's unlikely that any of his earlier works achieve that aim more specifically than this extraordinarily intimate achievement.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too experimental for much of a release in the U.S., "Arirang" should play well at festivals that have embraced Kim's films before and will surely be sought out by his fans.
criticWIRE grade: A-