Arirang (2011): Korean Kim Ki-duk’s Personal Documentary

Cannes Film Fest 2011–The nature and limits of self-reflexivity are manifest in Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, a personal documentary in which the famous Korean director tries to explain the creative block in his career, specifically why he has not made a movie in several years, after immense creativity over the past decade.

World-premiering in the Certain Regard series at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, “Arirang” divided critics.  Some found the confessional film to be revelatory, while others felt that it was too narcissistic and of interest only to artists.

Kim, a prolific director with an impressive resume, relates in a series of monologues why and how he had reached an impasse after making over a dozen pictures that were well received.

Kim recites “Arirang,” a famous Korean folk song, in a plaintive mode.  The song expresses the feelings of a bitter, dejected woman, who misses her lover.  “Through Arirang I climb over one hill in life.  Through Arirang I understand human beings, thank the nature, and accept my life as it is now. We are now in the terrestrial world lurking with desires, in the ghostly world lurking with sorrow in the imaginary world lurking with dreams, with no beginning nor end, slowly going crazy. What is affection that it still remains all around me decaying? It’s still stuck to the crown of my head, testing my emotions. It’s still hiding deep within my heart, testing my sense of compassion. If I didn’t give my heart, they would be bad people erased from memories but if I gave my heart, I couldn’t let them go till the day that I die as despicable people.

“Alright. Let’s mercilessly kill each other in our hearts till we die. Even today I hold back as I get angry I laugh as I get jealous I love as I despise And forgive as I quiver with the urge to kill. Wait I will kill Myself, who remembers you.”

The confessions vary in interest, some of which are illuminating and emotionally touching, while others are rather dull in reflecting an angry and even bitter director.  To make them more interesting cinematically, Kim shoots and frames the monologues as if they were dialogues between people.

At first, we are led to believe that Kim’s problems are a result of a traumatic accident on the set of his last movie, “Dream.”  But then the monologues get broader in scope to include all kinds of troubles, particularly financial ones. Kim aims at such varied targets as financial backers, producers, and even moviegoers, though clearly he feels that for him filmmaking is not a vocation but an avocation, a calling.

One hopes this talented director will return to broader filmmaking now that he has exorcized some of his inner demons.  After this rather depressing experience, I felt like revisiting Fellini’s “81/2,” Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” and Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” all self-reflexive meditations on the creative process, but far more colorful and joyous than “Arirang.”