Starring: Cho Je-Hyun, Seo Won, Choi Duek-Mun and Kim Yun-Tae
Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Writing Credits: Kim Ki-Duk
Distributor: Lifesize Entertainment (Korea 2001/USA 2005)
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated: Unrated

Whether capturing the tranquility of Buddhist temples or the brutality of swallowed fish hooks, the films of Kim Ki-Duk all boil down to one essential theme: the emotional and psychological damage that fate inevitably has in store for all of us. The axiom "life is hard," while true, is as uselessly simplistic as it sounds; in Kim's world, the struggles of human experience find a complex resonance that reaches well beyond didacticism or superfluousness.

Perhaps because Kim's award-winning masterpiece Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring brought him stateside acclaim last year, his earlier works are just now finding their way to screens in the U.S. Now available on DVD, 2001's The Isle – including those unforgettable fish hooks – brought early attention to the director when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. His latest efforts, Samaritan Girl (2003) and 3-Iron (2004) are scheduled for U.S. release later this year. Perhaps as a prelude to those is BAD GUY, Kim's feisty trip into the dark side from 2001.

As a sample of Kim's work, one would be hard-pressed to find a more representative effort than BAD GUY. The director's trademark themes of desire, violence, revenge, and obsession play out against a map of sex and love. Set against the gaudy netherworld of gangsters, pimps and prostitutes, the film will surely be controversial over its representation of battered women. Nevertheless, BAD GUY is compelling cinema, a serious and sublime work of art that deserves the widest audience possible. It argues the need for a larger understanding of class and gender, as well as an awareness of their intersecting points in a society driven by machismo and materialism.

In a public park, a stylish college girl, Sun-hwa (Seo Won) awaits her boyfriend on a bench. She is almost unaware of the man who sits on the other end of the bench, a menacing local pimp, Han-gi (Cho Je-Hyun). It is a scene that could happen anytime, in any city, and it is the fear of parents everywhere; it almost immediately evokes anxious concern in the viewer. But Kim, equal parts provocateur and innovator, is rarely interested in the conventional or the expected, and he turns the situation on its ear with the most benign violence imaginable…a kiss.

Tossed into the Korean underworld, the cruel relationship between these two characters begins to spin wildly on its axis. Han-gi's obsessive love and Sun-hwa's decimated self-esteem careen into each other with astonishing power and depth. These quietly powerful performances – there is little dialogue in the film, and Han-gi speaks only once in the entire film – exude longing and heartbreak in a way rarely seen on film, in between silent pauses and shattering screams. The sex portrayed in the film is rarely erotic, and often disturbing; as a window into the characters' identity, the sex act is obscured with the raw poignancy of people crumpled by circumstance and destroyed by their own dreams.

BAD GUY retains the evocative and eloquent camera work of Kim's other films, and Hwang Chol-Hyun's cinematography illuminates the garish and the picturesque with equal intensity. As the film's protagonist, Seo Won (who played a similarly lost prostitute in The Isle) allows her eyes to reveal what her dialogue doesn't – a shattered adolescent hiding a deeper, and perhaps more intense, maturity. Utterly malleable, Seo grasps the intracacies (and even the redundancies) of her character with a clear, calm understanding. With almost no words, Cho's performance may be even more stunning; his barbaric villain reeks of shame and passion, a broken man who wants a better life for himself…even if he has to take it by force.

Ultimately, what BAD GUY tells us is nothing we don't already know: that everyone wants to live an honest life, and life often has other plans in mind. When the unexpected occurs, the true test of humanity is to see how we roll with the punches. In Kim Ki-Duk's marvelous, evocative universe, the test is both the ends and the means. We are all bad guys, he seems to say…now, what are you going to do about it?

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2005 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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