In 2012, Kim Ki-Duk picked up the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for "Pieta," a brutal story of rape and redemption. Last year he landed on the Lido with the dialogue-free "Moebius," a film more commonly referred to as "that castration movie." His new film, "One on One," seems mild by comparison, even though the pre-credit sequence features a schoolgirl getting abducted and killed by a group of unidentified strangers. The ensuing murder-revenge thriller is still not for the faint-hearted, but this time out the South Korean director seems more interested in giving a state of the nation address rather than adding to his repertoire of shocking scenes.
After the credits roll we meet Oh-hyun (Kim Young-min, the young monk from Kim's 2003 Venice entry "Spring Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring"). He’s out on a date with a girl, who jokes that despite their numerous recent sorties she still has no idea what his job is. Is he some kind of cop going to uncover the murder? But he seems too brutal to be a good guy, he's blunt and harsh with his date, and his mysterious personality is ominous rather than romantic. We are none the wiser when he manages to stop a glass of wine from spilling with Bruce Lee-like reflexes. The girl is impressed enough to let Oh-hyun drive her home before rebuking his amorous advances. His night goes from bad to worse when he is abducted by a group of armed officers.
These wannabe Rambos shout "Defeat Communism" as a salutation, serving as a stark reminder that South Korea is on a permanent war footing. Looking like state approved honchos they question Oh-hyun, torturing him for information, before we arrive at the rub, the group is obsessed with discovering what exactly was his involvement in the May 9 abduction. They demand he writes a report on his activity of that day before dumping him in the street. Despite the hubbub, Kim still leaves unanswered questions about who Oh-hyun is, why the girl was killed and who his accomplices are.
The group begin abducting random men they suspect of being involved in the May 9 murder. How they got this information is not clear — and it's here that Kim's drama becomes repetitive. The intention seems to be to keep the audience in the dark as to the motivation of both groups as a means to ramp up tension, but the abduction scenes are too bland to create suspense, and it doesn't help either that the digital camera work is flat, a fact accentuated by all the scenes taking place at night.
Despite the tedium of the torture scenes, Kim keeps things interesting by giving away tidbits of information before the revenge squad arrives. There's the suspect with the pregnant wife who doesn't like doing anything against his will. The man who believes he can abuse his girlfriend by giving her cash after his discrepancies. What emerges is a picture where both sides have good guys and bad guys, frauds and stand-up guys. Sometimes the point about power corrupting is made with the bluntness of a castration knife. (One abused woman decries, "Dictators are not just for States.") It's a weak attempt at embodying the idea of the personal being political.
As is so often the case, it's the female characters who are Kim's blind-spot, it’s all a bit too obvious when it's a woman who quits the revenge squad when the actions of their leader go too far.
The big idea that becomes the focal point of Kim's ramblings is whether the defense of being a soldier following orders is justified. Through a character looking at world events on the internet, it's clear that Kim isn’t just concerned with the tumultuous Korean border, but also interventions in the Middle East. Yet after all the rope-a-dope in anticipation of the final couple of rounds, when the director moves to develop a knockout blow, he keeps on brushing the target, too punch-drunk to deliver a knock-out blow.
Kim makes a slapdash attempt at philosophizing on why human development requires criminal and war, and that the murder of children is often seen as collateral damage simply because the ends justifies the means. The attempt to maintain a certain social structure is destined to have weighty victims. The director's primary ire is aimed at the capitalist system which he sees as broken. But the message, couched within the conventions of a thriller, often misses its mark. Ultimately, Kim winds up being a victim of his own ambition.
"One on One" premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.