“Time,” the thirteenth film by that most disposable of Asian auteurs, Kim Ki-duk, should finally, definitively, expose the filmmaker’s patented layering of ambiguities as nothing more than the tawdry covering-up of an empty imagination. As if the indignity of “3-Iron,” with its ridiculous descent into invisible-man romantic gymnastics, weren’t punishment enough, Kim has returned with a tale of, ostensibly, “love against the passage of TIME.” Except that “Time” doesn’t have much in it that would be recognizable to humans as love, and even if we did grant for a second that either of its barely sketched bundles of unpleasantness wandered within spitting distance of human emotion over the course of the narrative, it’s still largely unclear what the passage of time has to do with the proceedings. Especially when the film takes place over a mere twelve months. (Though, this might well represent an eternity for a filmmaker whose career has been so thoroughly marred by restless hyperactivity.)
If you’ve seen Hiroshi Teshigahara‘s “The Face of Another” or John Frankenheimer‘s “Seconds,” then “Time” is certainly not worth a passing thought. If you haven’t, watch one of those movies instead. Following up better treatments of that old saw about rekindling life and love via facial transfiguration with a lightweight drifter like “Time” is one way to stand out of the pack, even if, for a filmmaker who seems so thoroughly careerist, the mark of distinction isn’t a positive one. Kim’s switched up gender roles – Teshigahara and Frankenheimer both chose the pride of the aging male as the starting point for their investigations – by having inexplicably nutso Seh-hee (Park Ji-Yeon) undergo plastic surgery and disappear from hapless boyfriend Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo, who, for some reason is seen editing portions of Kim’s “3-Iron” on his home computer), only to return with a new face, name (See-hee, played now by Seong Hyeon-a), and equally troubled demeanor, but this doesn’t represent a daring maneuver when his vision of femininity is already so thoroughly flawed (see any of his other films). See-hee eventually manages to seduce Ji-woo, but when he discovers her real identity by chance, Kim, like a less intellectual David Fincher, shoots us back through his ludicrous rabbit hole, not once, but twice.
The intertwining of masquerade and romance isn’t exactly the stuff of narrative innovation (would that Seh-hee had transformed herself into a swan-that would have been a movie), so criticizing “Time” solely for timidly walking ground trod earlier with more confidence and success isn’t quite fair. So, let it not go unsaid that “Time” is ineptly and flatly made, poorly scripted, overly fixated on an M.C. Escher-esque sculpture of two hands intertwining around a receding staircase, and acted with brio that’s left hanging in the void where a coherent scenario should have provided support. By the sixth or seventh hysterical confrontation between some configuration of Ji-woo and his erstwhile lover in the coffee shop they frequent, plausibility’s been thoroughly busted (after so many broken plates, one would think they’d be banished from the premises, or something), and the movie never comes close to recovering any of its initial slight appeal-admittedly engendered by its attractive young people. Kim’s lauded “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” was a visually lovely, if forgettable stab at globally exportable exotica, generally successful in its limited way. That was a movie actually (and obviously) about the passage of time, and one that seemed like it might portend a new direction for a scattershot minor talent. After a few more films, and now “Time,” time seems less like a favored subject than something Kim Ki-duk’s just run out of.