Though it goes on exactly a reel too long, "Bad Guy" reps the most emotionally satisfying pic to date by Korean iconoclast Kim Ki-duk ("The Isle," "Address Unknown"). It's a melancholy love story, shot through with pain and violence, between a low-life gangster and a young woman he forces into prostitution.

Though it goes on exactly a reel too long, “Bad Guy” reps the most emotionally satisfying pic to date by Korean iconoclast Kim Ki-duk (“The Isle,” “Address Unknown”). It’s a melancholy love story, shot through with pain and violence, between a low-life gangster and a young woman he forces into prostitution. A skewed beauty-and-the-beast yarn played out with all of Kim’s dark fatalism, this looks certain to get major fest exposure in the West early next year following its Pusan preem, where it proved a major talking point, turning some off with its darkness but enthusing others.

It’s certainly Kim’s tightest and most coherent movie, with a small kernel of characters and a simple concept that’s rigorously played out to the end — and beyond. Ironically for a film that’s largely set in and around a tawdry red-light district, it’s his most expensive production so far, more than twice his usual tab. But the money seems well spent: With its careful camerawork and rich color palette of gaudy neon and trashy costumes, pic evokes a world run by its own rules.

Striking opening has glowering hardhead Han-gi (Kim regular Jo Jae-hyeon) spotting pretty college student Seon-hwa (Seo Weon) sitting primly on a park bench waiting for her b.f. Instantly falling for her, Han-gi strides over and forcibly kisses her on the mouth — and hardly notices his subsequent beating by some soldiers and Seon-hwa’s total disgust. However, the cute 21-year-old isn’t all she seems: Following her some time later, Han-gi finds she owes money and has become a pickpocket.

When she takes out a loan in desperation, she ends up signing over her body and becoming a shop-front hooker in an establishment under Han-gi’s protection.

These early scenes are rapidly sketched, plunging the viewer into the helmer’s recognizable world of extreme characters ruled solely by their emotions. As Seon-hwa loses her virginity to a client and painfully adjusts to brothel life, Han-gi watches her every move through a two-way mirror, entranced but afraid, and never uttering a word to anybody. That’s just the start of a sad, twisted love story in which both gradually become dependent on each other — the silent Han-gi almost at the cost of his life and Seon-hwa certainly of her dreams.

With its black, frequently violent humor (especially in the way Han-gi and his punks are portrayed) and a take on female sexuality that’s enough to give the PC crowd a coronary, “Bad Guy” hardly bears examination in realistic terms. If anything, the movie is almost Gallic in tone, finding romance in the scungiest settings and conveying the dull ache of ill-fated lives.

With no dialogue but very expressive eyes, Jo works wonders with the character of Han-gi, and Seo, with a slight roughness to her looks, traverses the full range of emotions as Seon-hwa, from wounded deer through spunky rebel to role-playing dream girl. Supporting perfs by other hookers and male low-lifes provide a colorful frame for the central story.

Ten minutes before the end, the story brilliantly comes full circle — and should end right there. However, in scenes reminiscent of his earlier “Birdcage Inn,” Kim pushes the story on for one more lap — diminishing the characters in the process. If ever a picture needed to lose its final reel, this is it.

Bad Guy

South Korea

Production

A Tube Entertainment presentation of an LJ Film Co. production. (International sales: Tube, Seoul.) Produced by Lee Seung-jae. Executive producer, Lee Seung-beom. Directed, written by Kim Ki-duk.

Crew

Camera (color), Hwang Cheol-hyeon; editor, Ham Seong-weon; music, Park Ho-jun; art director, Kim Seon-ju; costumes, Jeon Hong-ju; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Tae-gyu. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (Korean Panorama), Nov. 11, 2001. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Jo Jae-hyeon, Seo Weon.
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