Kim Ki-duk, Maverick Korean Director, Dies at 59

Maverick Korean Director Kim Ki-duk Reported Dead in Latvia

Award-winning and deeply divisive South Korean film director Kim Ki-duk has died of COVID-19-related complications while on a visit to Latvia.

Variety has confirmed Kim’s death with sources in Estonia who were working with him on a new project. The director died of coronavirus in a hospital in the Latvian capital of Riga on Thursday. He was 59. Due to European laws, the hospital won’t officially comment on the case.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that it had been informed of the death in hospital of a 59 year old Korean man, but declined to disclose his name. It said that it was helping with funeral arrangements. The Latvian Embassy in Seoul also confirmed reports of the death.

Kim Soon-mo of Kim Ki-Duk Film told local media that Kim’s family had been informed of the death by an interpreter.

The Latvian news portal Delfi said Kim arrived in Latvia a month ago with the intention of buying a house and applying for alien residency status.

Edith Sepp, CEO of the Estonian Film Institute, tells Variety that Kim approached the organization in September, keen to submit a new film entitled “Rain, Snow, Cloud and Fog,” a co-production between Korea and Estonia that would have shot in the latter. Though he was late with the application, the director intended to apply again in January 2021.

“This is a great shame he never managed to do that since the story seemed intriguing, as all his stories were. It touched different models of possible relationships and four separate stories were woven into one story,” described Sepp.

“You might like or dislike his style of filmmaking, but it did not leave you untouched,” Sepp added. “Troubled mind perhaps, but as [a] person, when we met him briefly in autumn, he was a true-to-the-core creator, a talent, especially when he described his next film, eyes full of passion. In my opinion, he only wanted to make films in life, nothing else.”

Kim was one of the first directors of the Korean new wave to break into international consciousness, delivering shocking, but beautifully crafted, dramas including “The Isle” in 2000 and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” in 2003.

While they delivered a new aesthetic and collected a shelf full of festival prizes, several of his films were criticized for animal cruelty or their depiction of extreme human cruelty. In between his fine art, Kim also delivered several duds including “The Coast Guard” and “Dream.”

Despite his status overseas, Kim and the Korean film industry establishment kept each other at a distance. Kim often handled writing, directing, editing and cinematography tasks himself, allowing him to work on micro budgets and not put himself in the debt of larger firms.

That approach apparently changed in 2015 when he signed up to direct a mainland Chinese film “Who Is God” on the theme of Buddhism, partially backed by Dick Cook, a former head of Disney. With a $37 million budget, it would have cost three times the combined production budgets of all his prior movies. But with Korea and China at political loggerheads over the deployment of missiles, he was denied a work visa in August 2016.

In the last several years, Kim’s halo slipped even further. In 2017/18 he was at the center of a #MeToo scandal after an actress he had been working with filed a sexual assault case against him.

The case was partially dismissed for lack of physical evidence and he got away with a modest fine. Soon after, he traveled to the Berlin festival with one of his weakest films to date, “Human, Space, Time and Human,” and in an off-site press conference faced down the media.

But more evidence of his violence towards women surfaced later the same year when three actresses made new accusations on investigative news show “PD’s Notebook,” which was broadcast on Korean public broadcaster MBC. His career in South Korea effectively ended at that point.