A gloriously off-the-charts study in perversity featuring castration, rape and incest, Kim Ki-duk’s “Moebius” is right inside the Korean king-of-wackitude’s wheelhouse of outrageous cinema. A twisted companion piece to the fraught mother-son relationship in last year’s “Pieta,” Kim’s latest ups the ante with arguably his most twisted nuclear family yet, a lust-and-guilt-ridden menage a quatre. A censored version is slated to bow in South Korea Sept. 5, and offshore distribs will need cojones of steel to release what will probably still be NC-17 material even in edited form, but fearless fests will lap it up.
Just to prove what a daring formalist he is at heart, Kim has chosen to tell this story without a word of dialogue, unless you count gasps of pain and pleasure, of which there are rather a lot throughout. This means the characters are never named, and the English-language press notes describe them only as Father (Cho Jae-hyun, reuniting with Kim after their legendary collaborations on “Address Unknown” and “Bad Guy”), Son (teen thesp Seo Young-ju) and Mother, played by Lee Eun-woo, who, in a bravura feat of transformation, also plays another key role as the father’s younger mistress.
As the story starts, it’s clear Mom has found out about Dad’s affair and is taking it badly, judging by the way they come to blows when he takes a call from his lover, a store clerk who lives nearby. The son inertly ignores the fuss, seemingly more preoccupied with comicbooks and masturbation, like most teenage boys. One night, when the mother fails to get at the father with a knife, she takes out her rage on her own son by cutting his penis off, eats the severed member (recalling the mother’s ingestion of her son’s amputated toe in “Pieta”), and then runs off distraught and hysterical into the night.
Audiences who haven’t walked out by this point in disgust (although surely no one goes to a Kim Ki-duk film without knowing what they might be in for) will be treated to an even more grueling second and third act, as the shame-stricken father investigates penis transplants on the Internet, and the son ends up taking part (after a fashion, given his castrated state) in a gang rape of the mistress. The boy later discovers — with Dad’s guidance, no less — how to bring himself to climax through self-abrasion and knife gouging of other body parts. And then it gets even nuttier when Mom comes home for the last act, precipitating a chain of events that make sense of the pic’s titular chiral object.
Many will of course be offended by the film’s very premise, and that’s surely Kim’s intention; always a vicious satirist of bourgeois values, he’s almost never knowingly passed up a chance to dollop a little misogynistic sadism somewhere into the plot, like the spicy kimchi no Korean meal would be complete without. And like Lars von Trier, whose “Antichrist” the film sort of evokes, Kim is something of a professional provocateur, which doesn’t cancel out the fact that he’s quite serious about exploring extreme emotional states.
There’s no doubt the film is meant to be funny, an extreme black comedy, and neither is there any doubt that he also wants us to feel for these poor, broken, batshit-crazy people. They’re ridiculous, but they’re also somehow believable, even relatable, mostly thanks to the cast’s extraordinary skills at emoting wordlessly. The decision to eschew dialogue seems perverse at first, but by degrees it makes sense, creating a primal quality that harks back to ancient forms of theater, even without the intended echoes of “Oedipus Rex.” Any film-studies academics out there who still like to write about notions such as the phallus as defined by Lacan and other theoreticians fashionable in the 1980s will have a field day with this one.
Technically, “Moebius” is no great shakes, shot as it is on an unforgiving digital rig held by the helmer himself, although the cinematography is credited to Moon Sang-won. There are some attempts to use stylized lighting setups here and there, but the result doesn’t have the same bejeweled beauty of Kim’s earlier work on 35mm. Editing by the multitasking director is crisp and effective, keeping the tone hovering on the biting point of ambiguity throughout.