Internationally at least, Kim Ki-Duk's "Pieta" was hardly the popular choice to win the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. The Korean provocateur is a long-time favorite at Venice, and the film was predictably well-received by local audiences and critic, but U.S. and U.K. critics, ourselves included were less impressed, finding it rather drab, prosaic and straightforward.
So when the film won the Golden Lion, eyebrows were raised, and even more so when it emerged that the win was something of a compromise: Michael Mann's jury had been told that they couldn't give all the prizes to "The Master," and elected to ultimately give the top prize to Kim's film. The director returned to the Lido this year for a victory lap with his latest, "Moebius," which had already made headlines after being banned in its uncut form at home in Korea, and the mood in the queue going in to the screening was of trepidation from most of those who'd endured "Pieta."
Fortunately, the thematically-similar "Moebius" is a much happier experience. Well, happier is probably the wrong word, but Kim treats his bloody and provocative taboo breaking with a much lighter touch this time around, and the result, while still deeply flawed, is mostly a sly dark comedy that doubles as a very impressive display of wordless storytelling.
The opening makes clear from the off whether you're going to respond to the movie or not. A Father (Cho Jae-Hyun) and Mother (Lee Eun-Woo)'s marriage is collapsing, due to his affair with A Young Woman (also played by Lee). The Mother loses her grip on sanity as a result, and tries to castrate her husband, but locked out of his room, instead bloodily chops off the penis of her Son (Seo Young-ju), before, uh, eating it, and running off into the night. Yes, it's a comedy.
When the Son is released from hospital, his horrified Father tries to turn over a new leaf, breaking things off with the Young Woman, and even having his own penis surgically removed in the hope that it might be able to be transplanted onto his son. The Young Woman then tries to seduce the son, only for him to fall in with a local gang of hoodlums who gang rape her. But they later hook up for real, after the Son discovers he can come by causing himself pain, and team up to take revenge on the principle rapist. Then the mother comes back. Yes, it's still a comedy.
Even by Kim's standards, it's ugly, extreme stuff, and you probably know from the details above whether it's for you or not. The crucial difference is that it's so extreme that for the most part, it crosses over and becomes blackly hilarious rather than horrifying, Kim treats proceedings with an almost slapstick-like touch, and fully aware of how ridiculous this Oedipal tragedy is. Those who hadn't left to vomit outside the screening room (which actually happened) were more often than not howling in the aisles. But it's not empty laughter -- there's genuine engagement with themes of Oedipal love, sexual perversity, forgiveness, and masculinity, and for all the shock value, it's often quite thoughtful.
That said, it doesn't all come off. When Kim does try to invest proceedings with actual pathos, as in the conclusion, it tends to fall flat. And while you could argue it's splitting hairs, the rape aspect feels genuinely misjudged, not so much for the scene itself (which fortunately isn't played for laughs), but for Kim's treatment of the Young Woman (there are hints she's being punished for her extra-marital transgressions) and for the Young Woman's attitude towards the perpetrators (more than one of whom are later rewarded with consensual sex). For all of the more graphic moments, it's this that feels the most unpleasant.
What is truly impressive, and somewhat overlooked in the hype over the film's more trangressive moments, is the way that the story is told entirely without dialogue. It's not exactly a silent film -- there's plenty of moaning and screaming -- but not a word of dialogue is exchanged, and it's impressive how fully-formed Kim's storytelling proves to be: all kinds of nuances and themes come across without having to be explained.
It's still a difficult film to love, or even like, for some of the reasons above. But it's superior in every way to the dull "Pieta," and hopefully Kim's got his desire to shock out of the system with this one -- if so, he might end up cooking up something genuinely worthy of the Golden Lion down the line. [B-]