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Toronto Review: Penis Mutilation, Rock Masturbation, and Other Wacky Ingredients Turn Kim Ki-duk's Wordless 'Moebius' Into a Memorable Provocation

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 10, 2013 at 8:54AM

Korean director Kim Ki-duk is no stranger to dark stories of estranged families led to vicious acts of violence, but "Moebius" still manages to freshen up those expectations. Within its first 15 minutes, we witness a psychotic woman attempt to chop off her husband's penis in an act of revenge for his infidelity; when he fights back, she manages to do it to their teenage son (Seo Young-ju) instead, and swallows his bloody member seconds later. The guilt-ridden father (Cho Jae-hyun) drags his ailing son to the hospital and makes the split second decision to have his own genitals removed for a genital transplant. While these deliriously sick ingredients swiftly take place, nobody speaks a word.
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"Moebius."

Korean director Kim Ki-duk is no stranger to dark stories of estranged families led to vicious acts of violence, but "Moebius" still manages to freshen up those expectations. Within its first 15 minutes, we witness a psychotic woman attempt to chop off her husband's penis in an act of revenge for his infidelity; when he fights back, she manages to do it to their teenage son (Seo Young-ju) instead, and swallows his bloody member seconds later. The guilt-ridden father (Cho Jae-hyun) drags his ailing son to the hospital and makes the split second decision to have his own genitals removed for a genital transplant. While these deliriously sick ingredients swiftly take place, nobody speaks a word.

That surprising combination of shocking behavior and keen visual storytelling continues for the entire movie. Though it has no dialogue, "Moebius" is filled with grunts and intimidating stares that make its twisted developments into a strangely involving encounter with macabre extremes. It's impossible to look away -- not only because the sense of anticipation is so vivid, but because there's no other way to follow the bizarre plot than keep with it.

After the newly amputated young man falls in with a menacing group of older reprobates, he's forced to participate in the gang rape of a young store clerk whom he had previously considered a crush. Then "Moebius" gets, well, weirder. Behind bars, he's visited by his father, who has figured out a potential solution to finding sexual release without his manhood. By rubbing a rock against his flesh until he bleeds, the intensity of the friction leads him to orgasm. Heeding advice of his father, the boy follows suit, leading to more than one scene in which the characters moan in an unnerving combination of pleasure and pain. Kim doesn't skimp on the bloody closeups.

The director continually advances his subversive premise, with the boy discovering a new level of sexual satisfaction in cooperation with his new girlfriend by using a knife embedded in his back to innovative ends. Yet just when he's starting to adapt to a life without his junk, his father's specimen is ready for the transplant. Absurd from the outset, the conundrum never ceases to create a wild feeling of uneasiness, although Kim's transparent drive to keep pushing the material toward its most grisly possibilities often feels borderline silly. After all, the scenario wouldn't be out of place in a Troma production.

But despite the ridiculous set of twists, Kim's cast plays the whole thing straight. Their faces convey volumes about the prevalent despair and emphasize each dreadful new development. In the final showdown, which features the same trio of relatives from the first scene, Kim provides a vivid alternative to the typical shouting matches found in melodramatic depictions of domestic feuds. The sheer bravado of Kim's willingness to carry the drama through brutish physical incursions creates a gripping form of suspense. As with last year's incest drama "Pietá" (which won the Golden Lion at Venice), Kim magnifies the potency of family tensions by forcing them into radical, anarchic encounters.

The father figure in "Moebius" is a perfect stand-in for the director: He's frequently seen sitting at his laptop googling about the possibilities of rock-based masturbation, as one might assume Kim did in the process of researching this movie, seeking a means of pushing forward the outrageousness while keeping it rooted in some semblance of realism. Like "The Human Centipede" and its sequel, this is a movie that foregrounds its gimmick. But Kim also makes a fascinating attempt to give the movie a greater significance that largely manages to hold it together. "Moebius" makes its freakish images so credible it demands the silent treatment, since its vulgar ingredients practically defy verbal limitations.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although too shocking for many viewers, "Moebius" has no subtitles, which might be plus in today's subtitle-averse moviegoing world. Its best best is with a genre label able to play up its midnight movie appeal.


This article is related to: Reviews, Kim Ki-duk, Moebius, Toronto International Film Festival, Korean