By Leo White
Should we call Arirang a documentary film or take on board director Ki-duk Kim's suggestion that it is really a drama? This request suggests that perhaps Arirang is actually a kind of docu-drama, with its combination of opinions, autobiography and countryside living, all tied together with some strong emotions.
Ki-duk Kim is the director behind a multitude of films including The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001) and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (2003) that, even when they have controversial or shocking themes are well made, thought-provoking and many are, deservedly, critically acclaimed.
Arirang marks Ki-duk Kim's first film in over three years which, bearing in mind his prolific output of at least one movie a year since 2000, might initially seem a little odd. However, part of his neglect of the cinema, until he purchased a digital camera to make this film about himself discussing considerations of life, art and normality stem from the depression he suffered after an incident involving the near fatality of an actress in Dream (2008) - a hanging scene that went disastrously wrong.
For much of the film we view Kim's new existence, far away from the perceived glitzy and manic world of a film director, living a back-to-basics lifestyle in a little shack in the countryside. For much of the film he addresses us directly, making statements and declarations – filled with emotion – rejecting of his former world and yet showing a desire, a real need for a creative outlet. His arguments address a number of personal issues as well as commenting on the Korean film industry, where he gives opinions on the pros and cons of filmmaking, from the highs of his successes to very real box-office/ budgetary concerns. Indeed his thoughts as to the definition of commercial success is hard to disagree with. Many of his own films were of moderate budget but naturally required returns. The piles of awards (we get to see some that he keeps in his countryside accommodation) and the critical acclaim he received worldwide do not mean that his films receive significant distribution outside of film festivals or screenings at art cinemas.
The well loved Korean folk song Arirang is full of love and sadness and provides much more than the title for the film. It is sung in various snippets throughout the running time and provides a personal and cultural expression of the director's new life. Ki-duk Kim shows us many elements of this life, including his return to filmmaking by this self-filming endeavour. He uses digital editing to arrange his new film, as well as revisit his previous works. But his creativity extends beyond filmmaking, he is a talented craftsman. Watching the process of him designing and building an espresso maker is fascinating; it's a practical machine that seems to make a fine cup of coffee. More peculiar is the handgun creation/recreation where he creates a fully functioning firearm. Very practical, very well constructed, kind-of worrying.
A self-imposed exile or a vital excursion into rehabilitation and self-understanding? Most likely a combination of the two, which nevertheless offers a fascinating insight into one of the world's most interesting directors - his life, his occupations and his opinions. Recommended for an insight into the way that personal filmmaking can indeed result in a docu-drama.
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