Even a stopped clock shows the right time occasionally, and even the most off-putting films can hit on the odd line that syncs up with one’s experience while suffering quietly in the dark. In the case of Kim Ki-Duk’s unconscionable “Human, Time, Space and Human,” just such a moment is sneeringly delivered by the most cartoonishly repellent of the film’s many cardboard villains, a vaguely defined politician who cackles, “There is no God!” at the rough midpoint of this interminable, grimy two hours.
Imagine Darren Aronofsky’s terrific, basalt-hearted “Mother!” shorn of any wit or style, and repurposed away from phantasmagorical cautionary horror into something more like a manifesto. This garbled, self-important, deadeningly repetitive hodgepodge of doltish religious allegory has just one coherent message — and to be fair, it rings clear as a bell: Violent misogyny is cosmically justifiable, and so fundamentally baked-in to human nature that we might as well just get on with it.
Half an hour in and the only two women in the ensemble who are not sex workers have both been gang-raped by at least five different men. One of the women, played with damp-eyed, martyred passivity by Mina Fujii, is a newlywed on the grimmest imaginable honeymoon: a “cruise” aboard a rusty World War II-era battleship on which the one habitable cabin has been commandeered by a venal senator (Lee Sung-jae) and his gormless milquetoast son (Jang Keun-suk). All the other holidaymakers are gangsters (led by a live-wire Ryoo Seung-bum), prostitutes, gamblers, or roving packs of leering, sexually aggressive young men. Except there is one mysterious, mute older man (Ahn Sung-ki) who, near-uniquely, doesn’t rape anyone. He just peers in through the cabin windows to watch.
Suddenly, we’re in Act Two, titled “Space” and the Good Ship Rape-a-Lot is floating inexplicably among the clouds. Or is it that the sea below has disappeared, as people keep shouting? It’s not clear, but the point is, they’re supernaturally stranded with limited supplies so it can only be a matter of time before things get even nastier. Oh, and the newly widowed newlywed is now pregnant, which lets Kim piously work in a staggeringly condescending pro-life angle.
Let’s be very clear, lest these descriptions emit the irresistible pheromone musk of provocation: “Human, Space, Time and Human” is not just some snowflake-melting crusade across the high seas of illiberal Bad Takes and crummy hyper-conservative philosophies. It is also a stupefying bore, a litany of interchangeable standoffs, in which undifferentiated characters end up stabbing, raping, and/or eating one another without the faintest spark of visual élan. The insult atop the injury is the drabness of the indifferent craft, and the way Kim’s script redundantly belabors every one of its asinine themes, like it was written on a particularly sexist, fundamentalist Speak & Spell.
The controversial Korean auteur (responsible for such provocations as “Moebius” “Pieta,” and “Stop”) was recently embroiled in abuse allegations back home. Now that we’ve seen his thematically and cinematically dubious movie, the decision to invite him to a Berlinale that vociferously allies itself with the #MeToo movement seems even more questionable. What kind of debate can be served by the inclusion of such dreary, ugly nonsense? Even the old chestnut about the separation of the art from the artist cracks apart when there’s so little discernible artistry involved, and when even the most diehard “separatist” would be strongly advised to pick a less repellent hill to die on.