Talk about cutting your penis off to spite your testicles. While South Korean cinema continues to penetrate the mainstream (with that recent remake of Oldboy reminding everyone how good the original was), Kim Ki-duk, the enfant ignorè of his homeland, has directed a film that goes just that bit too far. We’re used to the violence of Asian cinema as a particularly bloody variant of slapstick humor, but until now, we’ve never seen a dry farce about a kid getting his dick hacked off by his mum. So thanks go to Ki-Duk for Moebius, a film that seems jury-rigged to alienate and offend almost everyone who passes eyes across it.
It starts as a melodrama about horrid sterile people living horrid sterile lives. Kid (Seo Young-joo) sees Dad (Cho Jea-hyun) and a shopkeeper (Lee Eun-woo) going at it in Dad’s 4x4. Understandably upset, Mum (also played by Lee Eun-woo… hmm) first attempts a penectomy on Dad before successfully attempting it (in yer standard nod to Greek drama) on Kid. So it turns out we’re not really watching The Ice Storm Redux. What we’re in for is penile transplants, erotic rock rubbing, and climax by knife in the back. This is a rarity: an arthouse film that “appeals” more on a physical level than an intellectual one.
It’s in the spaces of the soundscape — littered only by gasps and cries — that the sheer visceral agony of the penectomies come across in full. For all intents and purposes, this is a silent movie, but not in, say, the respectable mode of German Expressionism. The digital crispness Ki-duk favors has more in common with the workmanlike visual approach of a silent comedy, and he has his actors emote to the point where their eyes seem in danger of bugging out permanently. If you’re not laughing when one character vainly attempts to retrieve his severed penis from a busy freeway, then you’re taking world cinema too seriously.
By making Moebius this violent and this funny, Ki-duk has earned the contempt of the South Korean movie-going public. His general tendency toward outré violence is one of the reasons homeland audiences refuse to embrace him. There’s also the sense that Ki-duk’s work is uninformed by his Korean identity. His career as an artist began in France at the relatively late age of 30, and the avant-garde strictures of Moebius are Gallic, if they’re anything. With the film industry of South Korea being markedly inward-looking, it’s no wonder he doesn’t loom larger among his countrypeople. This does, however, mean he’s well placed to offer an insurgent statement on the nature of cinema.
Consider the sex scenes, such as they are. Ki-duk is often accused of misogyny, but this isn’t a revenge of the male gaze, largely because the dickless males are forced into ever more bizarre fetishes to reach climax. If there is, by default, a male gaze, then it’s one that literally emulates the lack of physical engagement in the male experience of watching onscreen sex. Furthermore, it’s the women — or rather woman — who take the decisive action here, while the men turn on each other in a hysterical crescendo of penis envy. It’s pretty clear that Ki-duk sees traditional constructs of masculinity, such as the father/son relationship, as basically unsustainable, so for all the misogyny on show, there’s more than a dash of misandry too.
That lack of warmth often makes the film seem as calculated to confound as the mathematical paradox it’s named for. In that regard, no one could accuse Ki-duk of misleading the audience. And yet, on a creative level, he does. There are contradictions and subversions aplenty: in the clash of digital filmmaking and silent cinema, in the mingling of comedy and violence, in the ambiguous role played by the women/woman of the piece. One suspects the real reason he’s unappreciated in his homeland is not simply because of his attraction to violence or his Western inflections, but also because he can’t, just can’t, play nice.