After reflecting on the brutal extremes of sexual relationships in his perversely fascinating “The Isle,” Korean director Kim Ki-Duk now examines the weight of modern history on a spiritually bankrupt society ruled by hostility, tension and blindness. Following three troubled teenagers in an isolated town dominated by a U.S. Army base, “Address Unknown” looks at the continuing reverberations of the Korean War and the powerfully corrupting influence of the military. Spreading its attention a little too thinly among several key characters, the drama lacks a strong center and its climactic run of tragedies feels overwrought. But the film’s intelligent themes should attract a core of critical support in festival showings.
Set in the 1970s in the isolated town of Pyongtaek, the drama’s characters all are scarred by the war and by the U.S. military presence that conditions their lives. All of them are incapable of expressing their emotions in any normal way; even the most gentle souls among them fail to escape their sad destiny to inflict and endure cruelty.
Chang-Guk (Yang Dong-Kun) lives with his young mother (Pang Eun-Jin) in a converted bus. She obsesses, Madame Butterfly-style, about the boy’s black American G.I. father, writing him regular letters that come back marked “address unknown.” Chang-Guk suffers from his mother’s instability and unwillingness to forget the man. Her lover is the local dog butcher (Cho Jae-Hyun). The man’s inhumane methods cause further anxiety for Chang-Guk, who assists him in the capture and killing of stray dogs to be served at the local diner.
Eun-Ok (Ban Min-Yung) was blinded in one eye during childhood war games with her brother. She hides the disfigurement beneath her hair and keeps to herself. Capable of showing affection only to her pet dog, she brings a whole new meaning to the term “puppy love” in her sexually intimate games with the animal. The son of a disabled war veteran (Myung Kye-Nam), Ji-Hum (Kim Young-Min) is drawn to Eun-Ok but unable to overcome his painful shyness. Instead, he watches as she sparks a problematic relationship with an acid-head U.S. soldier (Mitch Malum).
Writer-director Kim successfully integrates the various characters’ stories, creating an effective illustration of the crushing legacy of war, the inability to communicate and love and, in a sense, a metaphor for the pervasiveness of American cultural colonization. But the final act’s escalation of gruesome outcomes borders unintentionally on the ridiculous at times, undermining the message of despair. While it clearly serves the filmmaker’s point about a divided country whose society is crippled by suppressed rage, the tendency to resolve every conflict by having the characters slug the hell out of each other becomes wearing and repetitive.
Pang is far too shrill as Chang-Guk’s hysteria-prone mother, but performances from the younger cast members are uniformly strong even if the foregrounding of one rather than all three of them might have provided more of a dramatic focus. While the U.S. characters carry relatively minor weight, American dialogue is poorly written and played. Lacking the striking physical setting of “The Isle,” Kim’s new film displays the same strong visual sense with images of lonely intensity. Park Ho-Joon’s subtle string-and-piano score provides poignant accompaniment.