March 17, 2019

Beasts of Prey: The Return of Insect Woman

Kim Ki-young's late-career melodrama Beasts of Prey is also known as Carnivore and Carnivorous Animals in English-speaking countries but it might just as easily have been called Insect Woman 2 or The Return of Insect Woman or Child of the Insect Woman so indebted is it to the 1972 film that would set the tone for most of Kim's kooky output for the next decade. Repeating plot points include a young woman forced into prostitution by economics who then ends up wreaking havoc on the family of the patriarch who stole her virginity; an insatiably hungry baby that miraculously appears shortly after that middle-aged man is doped into a vasectomy; a bratty, self-important son who swears off vegetables and meat for a diet consisting entirely of honey; an out-of-control rat infestation problem in the basement of the family's country estate; a contractual agreement that divides daddy's time between two households — twelve hours in each.

Some changes work better in Beasts of Prey than previously — the sex scene on the glass table covered with spilled candies; the concubine's insistence that her lover wear a diaper and bib to turn back the clock. Most improvements, however, do not. The look of Beasts of Prey is very akin to that of a 1980s prime time TV soap opera; the acting recalls the comic stridency of early John Waters flicks. Sadly missing is the "infant versus rat" battle, the shadowy figure in the refrigerator, and the demented snarls of the female protagonist. A narrative thread involving gigolos who target middle-aged women also gets dropped too quickly while the barmaid with the mullet should've had more screen time for her hairdo alone.

March 15, 2019

Woman of Water: Basket Case

When a handsome soldier returns from the Vietnam War with a bum leg, the only woman he can secure as a wife has a terrible stutter. And he needs a wife pronto in order to secure the GI benefits that will allow him to purchase a farm. Complicating matters, he's got PTSD worsened by his mother's death while she's got major social anxieties hardly helped by her unimpressive singing voice. "A match made in heaven," says one of the townsfolk ironically. In his dreams, perhaps.

In reality, the two have a nightmarish lot to work through. He still suffers through flashbacks of the frontlines (which can be triggered by the mention of an M-16). She's being exploited as free labor once he discovers her supreme skill at basket-weaving. Will their first born child unite the two against all odds? Not once the tyke develops his own speech impediment. Will their new truck driver seduce the veteran/entrepreneur's wife? No, but she'll write a note saying he did. That last bit might sound a bit counterintuitive but the arrival of a conniving barmaid pretty much throws logic out to the winds. She's one of those temptresses who seem born to do evil, an opportunist who'd probably get much further if she dumped her less crafty boyfriend.

I'm afraid this is one of those movies in which the femme fatale is missing the requisite je ne sai quoi that would make her irresistible. Is it the role or the actress? I'm not sure. But this troublemaking bad girl feels a little too obvious. Yet just when you think this is building to a predictable conclusion adhering to the rules of film noir, Kim Ki-young puts in a few final plot twists that more than redeem Woman of Water as a tale of redemption. Once again, despite the misogyny, Kim's sympathies lie with his leading ladies. As do ours.

March 14, 2019

Woman of Fire: Kim Ki-Young Recycles Himself

With Woman of Fire (1971), you get a justifiably strong déjà vu feeling as psychosexual auteur Kim Ki-young revisits the exact same territory that he charted so memorably in his landmark movie The Housemaid (1961). But there's something new going on here too as Kim is also laying the groundwork for much of his wildly phantasmagorical work of the 1970s, freaky films like Insect Woman (1972), Promise of the Flesh (1975), and Killer Butterfly (1978). Sure, we're back to a housemaid (Youn Yuh-jung) who gets wrapped up in a perverse love triangle with a composer (Won Namkoong) and his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) but we're also getting a glimpse of things to come as Kim would go on to explore the eternally demented battle of the sexes with quite a few variations.

None of it's subtle in Woman of Fire. This country girl who becomes a domestic definitely has a screw loose — perhaps caused by being sexually attacked before heading to the city. The tendency of a few characters to laugh maniacally creates a feeling that the world, and not just a few outcasts, have gone certifiably insane. You might be frustrated or delighted by how much Woman of Fire has in common with The Housemaid. As for me, I experienced both reactions. Ultimately, this over-the-top melodrama might be the quintessence of Kim: the look, the vibe, the excesses, the creepy score, the tawdry tale. Which doesn't make it his best. It simply means that it's not the worst.

Awards: For her turn as the deranged servant who ends up ruling the roost, Youn Yuh-jung won top honors as Best Actress at Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival.

March 13, 2019

Killer Butterfly: The Ossified Will to Live

The lepidopterist who kills butterflies for his collection comes across as a creep nowadays. As animals and insects left and right land on the endangered species list, the idea of killing for sport feels especially unforgivable, and likely twisted. So when we see Killer Butterfly's hero, a harmonica-playing student in need of an antidepressant, inject a particularly big insect — that he's just netted — with poison, it's easy to relate to the woman who perceives his passion as perverse. Whether we too would offer him a cup of poison in response is another matter. (Don't worry he survives. At least physically.) Mentally, he may never be the same as his attempts to off himself are repeatedly interrupted by a cackling, Nietzschean bookseller who will not die even after being burned down to his skeletal remains.

When a cold win blows that skeleton to dust, another bag of bones is retrieved then transforms into a beautiful woman who hankers for human liver because she hasn't eaten in 2,000 years. She actually urinates 2,000-year-old pee should you doubt her age. I'm guessing it stinks! But if the first skeleton aggravated our sourpuss student, and the second one aroused him, neither proves a match made in heaven, and he's left to have one final encounter with a bodiless ancient skull.

What lies in store for the confused co-ed in the next half of Kim Ki-young's phantasmagoria? More skulls, more bones, some x-rays, more existentialism poetry, more deaths... and according to the imperturbable investigating detective, more empty soju bottles, too. Let's raise a glass of orange juice to zany cinema! (You'll understand the fruit drink reference once you watch this movie.)

March 12, 2019

Yangsan Province: Folk Film / Heart Hurt

I not-so-secretly suspect that Greed is the worst of all vices in that it is the vice that most often teams up with other vices to get the job done. Here the sin of avarice manifests in the mother of a village maiden (Kim Sam-hwa) when the parent becomes covetous of gifted silk. With such rich fabric on her mind, she sacrifices her daughter to the town bully (Park Am), a spoiled brat whose lust for the young girl becomes a destructive obsession. Naturally, obstacles exist — like the betrothed (Jo Yong-su), a poor lad whose father died some time ago and left his family poor as dirt — but Greed and Lust have made a pact. Nothing and no one will stop them. Things do not turn out so good for anyone.

The oldest surviving film of Kim Ki-young, Yangsan Province is an exquisite piece of filmmaking. The performances are highly stylized with the actors often striking poses as if they were recreating a 19th-century melodrama or pressing their faces together while facing out towards the camera like a pair of lovers in a silent film romance. The moment when the young woman slowly sinks out of the camera frame as she joins her seducer on the ground is particularly memorable. The soundtrack is also a stunner orchestrated with traditional Korean instruments that crescendo into an opera of sorts when the doomed young man's mother (Ko Seon-ae) believes her son has died. My favorite part of all may be when the score is integrated into the action as a masked troupe of traveling performers appears to mimic the movie's storyline just in time for the wedding/funeral/suicides. Highly recommended.

March 11, 2019

The Sea Knows: Not-So-Basic Training

Basic training probably involves some form of violence in many military indoctrinations but the punishments inflicted on Aro-un (Kim Woon-ha) as a Korean cadet in a Japanese troupe during World War II are especially brutal — not just physically but psychologically. Imagine licking the shit off the bottom of the just-shined shoe of a fellow soldier as your comrades laugh. (To be honest, I'm wondering how you could polish a shoe and not notice there was poop on the bottom but no matter...) Not everyone finds the shit-eating amusing, mind you. The tallest recruit, a fellow Korean named Inoue (Lee Sang-sa), has Aro-un's back through all the horrible hazing but initially, he's about it. Then love arrives!

Military brat Hideko (Gong Midori) is prejudiced against Koreans when she first meets Aro-un but soon enough she's warmed up to him and is breaking all the rules on his behalf. Did you know that scrubbing the back of a respected guest in the bath is a Japanese tradition? Well, neither did Hideko's outraged mom (Ju Jeung-ryu). Guess you learn something new everyday. Additionally, Hideko feeds Aro-un endless bowls of white rice, pours him a very shallow cup of ritual tea, and dances around in her kimono — all for Aro-un, Aro-un, Aro-un. Hell, Hideko would rather die in Aro-un's arms than run to a bomb shelter. That's how strongly she feels.

Will these two lovebirds brought together by pity survive the war? It's hard to tell. The American victory over the Japanese may be something to celebrate but even then a Korean soldier had a hard time making it out of the Land of the Rising Sun alive. The last scene in Kim Ki-young's war pic dramatically illustrates how tough that final escape from the jaws of death could be. Thrilling!

March 10, 2019

Iodo: Men Investigate Female Society

When a failed entrepreneur (kim Jeong-chul) mysteriously disappears off a ship headed to an island slated for ecotourist development, his drinking buddy (Choi Yun-seok) — who just happens to be a reporter! — is unfairly blamed for the death. No official inquiry takes place but the surviving journalist does feel compelled to quit his job and set his reputation aright by conducting his own unofficial investigation with his boss (Park Am) in tow. Which brings them both to a strange isle peopled almost entirely by women who have created a puzzling culture incorporating shamanism, deep-sea fishing, and necrophilia.

At first I admit I found Iodo somewhat difficult to track what with talk of frozen sperm and spirit possession casually tossed about. But by the end, I was fine with matter-of-factly accepting narrative elements such as a poorly timed sneeze and the potential powers of an incandescent infertility treatment. Can a Ponzi scheme dependent on abalone reproduction make an entire community filthy rich? Is chemical dumping or sisterly sorcery responsible for a handsome schemer's undoing? Can one woman (Kwon Mi-hye) actually strangle herself with a satin scarf? Best of all, how does her tattooed rival (Lee Hwa-shi) stiffen the limp genitals of their dead lover? (Warning: It ain't pretty!)

So many questions I'd never considered came into play in Iodo. And you know what? I was game for all of them. "It'll be doomsday. The end of human civilization," someone screams near the end of this Kim Ki-young freak show. That cry has become louder in recent years. And so this unusual concoction of sexploitation and eco-terrorism might initially register as outlandish nonsense but ends up feeling like an ahead-of-its-time warning about global apocalypse through climate change.

March 9, 2019

Promise of the Flesh: The Kink of Violence

Rape. That's a disturbing through line to have in your work but it appears to be one in the films of Kim Ki-young who repeatedly features sexual violence against women in his story lines. What makes that weird instead of just disturbing is that you sense that he's periodically attempting to combat sexism and misogyny between the scenes that show his unpredictable heroines being attacked. Bodices are ripped, breasts are exposed, but strangely these victims/survivors are less likely to scream than they are to be facially outraged. It's like Kim is aware of sexism but can't stop thinking of women primarily as sexual objects. Admittedly my exposure to Kim Ki-young is still fairly limited but in the especially twisted and perverse Promise of the Flesh, the leading lady — a murderess (Kim Ji-mee) — while definitely suffering from PTSD has a not-particularly-convincing journey to "love."

What kind of world is it when women are seduced by men barking lines like "I would marry any woman who would take care of my child" or "If you don't marry me, then I'll kill you then I'll kill myself"? It is a world of histrionics. Indeed, you get the feeling that Kim directed his actors to "play to the second balcony" for particularly heightened moments. People roll around on the floor, slap each other in the face, leer at each other as if only the crudest look could convey desire. The camerawork can be equally overstated with prolonged shots of the light at the top of the lighthouse or a particularly strange closeup that zooms in on a single eye during sex. The sweetest thing about Promise of the Flesh is the pink candy the prison guard (Park Jung-ja) is constantly slipping into her charge's mouth.

Awards: Grand Bell honors for Kim Ji-mee as Best Actress and Park Jung-ja as Best Supporting Actress.

March 8, 2019

Transgression: Head Monk in Training

The old monk is dying. Don't believe me? Then explain that blood he's just spat on the temple floor. But before he transitions to the next phase — nirvana seems a bit doubtful — he needs to pass on his mantle to his successor. There are a few men in the running: a power-hungry insider, an inspired academic, and a wise fool. Before we get to their final challenges (answering cryptic questions, fasting, and potentially jumping off a cliff), we get a glimpse into the lives of the latter two especially since they're best friends.

The bookish one mans the drum that calls monks to their daily beatings of bamboo, cures schizophrenia with a well-placed acupuncture needle, and has a tortured, largely platonic affair with a flirtatious female monk from a neighboring temple; his troublemaking buddy steals sacks of flour for money, farts in formal settings, and eats whenever he gets the chance. One is respected; one is loved. There's a lesson to be learned here now what might that be... Maybe lead with the heart, not the brain?

After watching Insect Woman and The Housemaid, I was expecting Transgression to veer into camp but Kim Ki-young chooses not to take the melodramatic route with this one. To the contrary, despite the theatrics — which are often quite striking and deliberate in a way that feels more arthouse than grindhouse — this film is grounded in a reality that mirrors our world with minimum grotesquerie. The extended opening shot of a giant rock may strike you as an example of bad moviemaking but when Kim returns to that seemingly bland visual at the end, it's suddenly laden with meaning that is nothing short of humbling. You might say, "Buddhism rocks."

March 7, 2019

Insect Woman: Off With Whose Head?

Hungry for something truly bizarre? Then here's a movie that definitely out-weirds such cult classics as Hera Purple and Terror Taxi, two fellow films that had at least one bloody foot in the horror genre. This particular bit of craziness is called Insect Woman and comes from the warped mind of Kim Ki-young, a director whom I only knew from The Housemaid. On this particularly occasion, he definitely starts off with a bang. What we learn in short order: A married man (Won Namkoong) is checking into an insane asylum where patients, with impotence issues, will double as doctors. And teary-eyed kleptomaniac student (Youn Yuh-jung) is going to be pushed into prostitution after her father dies without leaving her family a financial legacy. They're brought together for a relatively long-term extramarital affair by two nasty lady pimps — all while a lounge version of "My Cherie Amour" plays in the background. From here, it only gets stranger.

The ensuing oddities are both large and small. At the more extreme end, we've got a vampire baby who feeds on the blood of living rats. At the subtler end, we have an irritable son committed to a diet of honey to avoid eating anything that's ever been alive. Snarling lips. Broken plates. Slapped faces. Mexican chicken. Spilled milk. Then there's the calculating wife who dopes her husband so she can subject him to a vasectomy. This movie has serious balls! Whether the shadowy figure in the refrigerator or the aphrodisiac gumdrops on the coffee table get your rocks off depends on how turned on you get by freaky for freaky's sake. I found it very stimulating.

Awards: Insect Woman won best director and best actor honors at the Baeksang Arts Awards for 1973.