Kim Ki-duk. You either dislike him or admire him for his extraordinary – and every so often, repulsive – filmmaking. That said, no matter what subject matter he tackles, he always finds an appreciative audience. Despite his lack of formal education, he has become one of the most prominent film directors of modern cinema; and he definitely knows how to balance a pictorial beauty with nauseating images.
Kim Ki-duk’s newest production The Net is an intriguing and disturbing story of a man who gets caught up in a gory struggle for survival. The film was sold to many European countries and got picked up by FinalCut, a South Korean distributor. With good predictions, The Net received its world premiere at this year’s Venice International Film Festival and was also positively received by the young South Korean audience at the 21st Busan International Film Festival.
One morning, a North Korean fisherman Nam Chul-woo (Ryoo Seoung-bum: Berlin File, New World) accidentally ends up in South Korea after his boat broke down. He reaches South Korean shore and is immediately picked up by secret service and transported to an unknown location, where he is thrust into a ferocious investigation conducted by – one might think – a lunatic inspector (Kim Young-min: Love Lies, Madonna); the mind game begins as the inspector tries to force the innocent man to admit that he is a North Korean spy. Apart from physical exhaustion, Nam also suffers from mental enervation (he is asked to write down his life’s story over and over again).
The fisherman is provided with a guardian, Oh Jin-woo (Lee Won-gun); a young and compassionate man who tries to stop the brutality against Nam. The North Korean soon becomes a sort of a TV star as everyone wants to know who he is: is he a spy or a defector? While he is in South Korea, the North Korean government – using all kinds of tactics – appeals to the South to release Nam, stating that he is “an extraordinary citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses hypocrisy of the South Korean government, e.g. while the head of secret services says that he feels sorry for all those poor souls who are mistreated and brainwashed in North Korea, Nam is beaten up and mentally abused – in the room next door – by the paranoid inspector (we learn that he hates North Koreans, “it is rather more personal than political,” as one of his colleagues stated). No one even considers that Nam might actually be happy as a fisherman, husband and a father – does everyone have to be miserable in North Korea? Who brainwashes who? One might feel annoyed with South Korea telling people that in the North there is no life, while the North says that South Korean capitalism and democracy indoctrinate their own people.
Kim makes an interesting political statement here; is there really a huge difference between being enslaved to capitalism or being enslaved to a tyrant? He doesn’t really criticise which part of Korea is good or bad; the viewer is left with an unanswered question here – or perhaps he deliberately lets the audience to decide for themselves? It is hard to read the filmmaker sometimes, or maybe it is simply hard for the Western audience to understand the complexity of the South and North Korean political conflict.
After awhile, realising that Nam is not going to help the South, they send him back to North Korea, where a welcoming party awaits; this does not last long – Nam knows that now, he will be investigated by his own government; his ordeal starts all over again. Will he survive?
Kim shows Nam’s innocence and vulnerability in its pure form; even when he meets a real spy, the protagonist is literally unaware of it. One might wonder whether it is innocence or his stupidity? The central performance by the fabulous and well-respected Ryoo Seoung-bum is impeccable, strong and very convincing; even his North Korean accent deserves praise. Nam is a disarming character and the audience can empathise with him towards the end of the film. Kim Young-min and Lee Won-gun delivered well as well. I must say that Kim Ki-duk always finds himself an amazing assemble of talented actors.
The filmmaker, yet again, broke his formal rule of silence and allowed for an unusual amount of dialogues in The Net; however, they are not the most sophisticated; like in One on One, certain dialogues felt a bit flat and repetitive at times.
Kim Ki-duk also serves as the film’s cinematographer; his gloomy and darkish pictures add to The Net’s – already depressing – atmosphere. With a good but brutal and bold narrative, the film is also a moving and compelling drama. Kim’s sincere storytelling has always been top notch and is rarely disappointing, and The Net is one of those stories that will leave a mark in your memory.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All Photos © FinalCut