“Who am I?” is the question posed in the first closing credit of “One on One,” as if the preceding two hours of screeching melodrama and stomach-churning, rusty nail-assisted violence could have been the work of anyone but Kim Ki-duk. Even fierce admirers of the prolific South Korean provocateur, however, would struggle to suggest that he’s in top form in this turgid, rushed-looking revenge tale, in which the perpetrators of a schoolgirl’s senseless murder are methodically singled out for punishment of the grisliest variety. A significant step down from the more engaging grotesquerie of last year’s bonkers incest drama “Moebius,” this year’s Venice Days opener may struggle to match even the limited level of distributor interest in Kim’s recent work.
“One on One” marks Kim’s second return to the Lido since winning the Golden Lion under contentious circumstances two years ago for “Pieta,” though it’s worth noting that he has yet to be invited back into Venice’s competition circle: The secondary prestige of a sidebar opening slot suggests that the most loyal programmers have reservations about the new film’s degree of appeal even to open-minded festival auds. (That’s it’s only having its international premiere at the fest may also be a factor: The pic opened domestically in May, to disappointing returns.) Narratively, “One on One” is neither propulsive nor titillating enough to lure in the crossover genre crowd; formally, moreover, it’s not half as arresting a statement as the dialogue-free “Moebius.”
Indeed, a return to wordless storytelling (also carried off with aplomb by Kim in “3-Iron”) may be in order after “One on One,” which wields dialogue as blunt and heavy as the instruments used to exert grievous, and copious, bodily harm onscreen — particularly in the script’s strange, stiff segues into English. “Now I’m just a blood-sucking, miserable leech!” wails one character. “All human beings are so sad — isn’t life exhausting and hard?” ponders another. Kim ensures that little goes unsaid between his characters in their frequent, repetitively shrill confrontations, unless you count the story’s political subtext, which is at once vague and articulated with minimal subtlety.
The unmotivated murder that opens the film would appear to stand in for a litany of global ills. At one point, a character peruses a series of bleak news headlines on international atrocities, ranging from ISIS terrorism to the recent story of the Malaysian couple sentenced to death for killing their maid. The director rather loftily assumes we’ll make the connection. It’s not all doom and gloom, however: Netting the cheapest of the film’s few, debatably intentional laughs, one sunny nightstick-bearer points out that they’re “better off than North Koreans,” though the film is otherwise short on closer-to-home social textures.
After opening with the slaying of the young victim by a band of contract killers, the revenge plot is set immediately into motion. Skipping the planning stages, Kim jumps straight in with the execution — so to speak — as a mysterious gang of seven nameless vigilantes known collectively as the Shadows begin targeting the assassins one by one. (“One by One,” incidentally, would be a more apt English-language title for the film.) Styling themselves as a succession of government authorities and led by a highly trained soldier (Don Lee) with an unspecified personal connection to the victim, the Shadows extract confessions from their prey by means of brutal torture, though there’s increasing dissent between the leader and his followers as to just how far they should go. As the group fractures internally, released target Oh-hyun (Kim Young-min) seeks to uncover their identity.
The narrative’s hitlist structure affords Kim ample scope for his favored methods of gore, with heads smashed and limbs pulled by the dozen in dank, chain-furnished chambers similar to the ones that housed much of “Pieta.” Yet it’s a less bravura exercise in perversity than much of the director’s better work, its most shocking gestures mollified with pedantic moral rhetoric and smothered by Park Young-min’s chintzy, string-based score. At a technical level, it’s as uninspired a film as Kim has yet made, with his own lensing unfortunately continuing the flat digital textures of his recent work, in a palette more beige than bloodied.
The minimal development of the individual characters keeps the audience at arm’s length from proceedings: For all the emotional anguish they express between them, it’s hard to care greatly about who gets dispatched by whom. The keen female focus of Kim’s last two films, meanwhile, is absent here. Bar one chiding member of the Shadows, the most substantial female presence here is Oh Min-ju, the random, hapless murder victim whose random termination is never explained. Per press notes, Kim demands that the appropriate viewer for his latest have a figurative Oh Min-ju of his or her own: “If you don’t have that murdered feeling,” he states, “there is no reason to watch this film.” That odd sentiment might explain the curious (and curiously dull) cocktail of nihilism and sentimentality that courses through “One on One,” though it does little in the way of identifying an overall point.