Post-millennial love is riddled with fear and the inability to communicate, says Kim Ki-duk’s “Amen,” and if that sounds cliched, then so be it. Meandering and oddly lethargic, pic boasts glaring narrative inconsistencies and willful abstractions that aren’t buttressed by any sense of intellectual coherence. Consequently, this low-budget fable about a Korean woman adrift in Europe descends further into the solipsism of Kim’s recent “Arirang,” suggesting the acclaimed helmer has likewise lost his way. Kim’s own prediction at a San Sebastian press conference that, apart from diehard fans, non-fest auds are unlikely to show any interest is probably spot-on.
An unnamed Korean girl (Kim Ye-na), with no French and little money, arrives in Paris in search of a street painter called Lee Myung-soo for reasons at first unclear. Finding her way to his home, she is told he has moved to Venice. She calls his name out across the rooftops, hoping he will miraculously hear her, and lies down in a cemetery (she’s drawn to the solidity and peacefulness of religious statues) before boarding a train where a mysterious figure in a gas mask enters her carriage, rapes her in a tunnel and robs her of her possessions, including her shoes.
The girl is given practically no dialogue, demonstrating her lack of a voice in this alien culture. Now forced to walk around in a pair of slippers and seemingly little the worse for her experience, she manages to find Lee’s address, but is told he has gone to Avignon. There, after falling asleep in a field, she awakens to find her shoes have been returned to her. Intriguingly, her attacker is also her protector.
As hermetically sealed as the surreal gas mask that features so largely here, “Amen” is deliberately haphazard in its relationship to reality. The multiple credibility flaws — for example, that the masked figure leaves taunting clues in places where the heroine just happens to be passing — bespeak either utter carelessness or auteur arrogance, but in either case it’s the film that suffers.
By some measure the film’s strongest element, Kim Ye-na is compelling as she patters hesitantly around. Forced to bear the weight entirely alone, she registers beautifully the nuances of fear, anger, frustration and general vulnerability. But auds will be as uncertain as she is about just what is going on. Multiple issues, from the loss of a sense of religion to, yes, the viewer as voyeur are all touched on but never developed, perhaps the result of there having been no script in place when shooting began.
Presumably meant as an homage to the European continent that has feted him for so long, pic has Kim Ki-duk hauling his digital camera around various attractive locations and indeed bringing them successfully to life with the directness of a tourist video. Several nicely composed frames contrast with the general air of spontaneous artlessness, such as when the girl sits forlornly on some steps as a pigeon slyly eyes her. Sound makes good use of ambient noise, rising and falling to reflect the intensity of the nightmare the girl is going through.