When gangland leader Han-ki (Jae-hyun) experiences love at first sight on encountering young college student Sun-hwa (Won) in downtown Seoul, he forcibly kisses her in front of her boyfriend. Totally unapologetic, and with no concern for public conduct or her wishes, Han-ki is beaten by police and left disgraced. Han-ki returns to the same place a few days later and sees Sun-hwa. She steals from a bookstore and is caught by a man demanding his money back. Unable to pay him, she is forced into prostituting herself until the money is paid back. To complicate matter further, her pimp is Han-ki.

A dark, brooding tale of love and obsession then, or a deeply misanthropic view of human nature? It seems that director Kim Ki-duk wants the film to be seen as both, but in the end Bad Guy reveals itself to be a confusing and thuggish work that descends into painful art-house parody long before the bizarre climax.

Those familiar with Ki-duk’s work will recognise ongoing concerns: expressions of passion, Korean character studies and volatile sexuality are ideas all broadly painted here, but whereas Address Unknown (2001) conveyed a more measured exploration of obsession, Bad Guy is predicated upon acts of extreme violence that become increasingly mundane and motiveless. In this respect, the film is a bedfellow with Ki-duk’s other success de scandale The Isle (2000), which again featured visceral and warped sexuality in spades.

Ki-duk’s borrowing from other films only muddles things further: the two-way mirror behind which Han-ki stares at Sun-hwa recalls the peep-show scenes in Paris, Texas (1984), the bleakly comic-tragic ending seems lifted from Cronenberg, and the increasingly inventive means of violence – plate glass and paper aeroplane – seem more suited to a Takeshi Kitano showdown.

The audience is then obliged to buy into the notion that some kind of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ scenario is being played out; he the bug-eyed silent type who feels remorse for his victim, she the debased virgin who grows to love her captor. The performances of both Jae-hyun and Won are neither praiseworthy nor engaging. She screams a lot, and when he finally speaks, a stuttering falsetto belies his neanderthal worldview.

In a word, ugly. There are no redeeming features in this Korean hinterland. Prostitutes burn cigarettes in rivals’ cheeks and hoodlums mete out primitive retribution. The sex is unerotic, the language agricultural, the impact misogynistic. Enfant terrible he may be, but for more cast-iron proof of Ki-duk’s visual flair, a far better work is Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring. While that film was ravishing, dreamlike and almost spiritual, Bad Guy remains an over-indulgent (and at forty minutes too long, longwinded) attempt to infiltrate sex and violence into Korean mainstream cinema, and leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouth.

The film opens with a scary, vicious public incident. An aggressive young hood, Han Gi (Jae-Hyun Cho), is shunned by a pretty middle class college girl, Sunhwa (Won Seo), on a bench. The hood physically forces her to kiss him. Her boyfriend and the police intercede. He is beaten by the men and spat on by the girl. He bides his times, then plots a revenge that will expose this seemingly innocent girl’s corrupt nature and force her into a life of enslaved prostitution; a degrading, violent life that she starts to prefer to her previous existence.

It is easy to dismiss Bad Guy as a nasty misogynistic tract that intones that all women secretly want to be turned into whores. This appraisal of the film is certainly valid – but it ignores the subtlety, intelligence and skill which such a seeming unpalatable subject is made captivating and thought-provoking. Although I don’t share the film’s attitude – in fact I found it abhorrent, and could never defend its (at times almost celebratory) debasement of a woman as being ironic or satirical in the same way as Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002), the sheer ambiguity and power of the filmmaking forced me into engaging with a world that I would usually choose to avoid like the plague.

Ki-duk Kim’s direction forces any intelligent viewer to question their own attitude to this situation. The music to the rapes (the sexual acts which Sunhwa is psychologically and emotionally beaten into performing are all rapes) is twee and romantic, while Han Gi appears to take no pleasure in his vengeance. Cho Jae-Hyun’s performance is the model of monastic stoicism. He has the presence of a young Beat Kitano, and the brooding masculinity of a new Robert Mitchum. Whenever he takes to involving himself with the proceedings, any misgivings about the unsavoury intentions are superseded by his compelling portrayal of a silent monster who some how manages to engage our sympathies. Of course, if Ki-duk Kim had aspirations to make a romance, he has done little to accommodate the audience’s desire to see this happen. Like the smashed glass motif that runs throughout the film, his tale is too cutting and too brittle to tug at the heartstrings.

Rape and cinema are seemingly becoming more and more willing bedfellows. Irreversible (2002) is the most obvious example of sexual violence being used as an assault on the cynical, unshockable tastes of a modern audience. But recreations of rape will never lose their power onscreen; they’ll never become as everyday and acceptable as cinematic murder and assaults. On the other hand, Bad Guy, despite the bad taste of its beliefs, is refreshingly unexploitative. Whereas Noe fetishised Monica Belluci in the most revealing silk slip from the spring collection, Sunhwa is introduced to the audience in a prim white ensemble to resemble a grown-up school girl. It should be noted however, that this innocent outfit is as sexually desirable to Korean tastes as the kinky disguises in Charlie Angels are to western male peccadilloes.

With the exception of the minor nudity during Sunhwa’s first trick, all of her sex scenes are filmed through a two-way mirror, with the emphasis on Han Gi as spectator. This modesty might disappoint the Kleenex brigade, but exposes a film whose concerns are less to do with gratifying perversions and fantasies. Even the endurance bout that is Irreversible’s scène du shock could not claim such tasteful high ground.

The final act exposes this imbalance between a disagreeable morality expressed through cool, smart filmmaking. The film has several codas, each satisfying yet at odds with each other. One sees the pair reunited on the bench where they first "met", tattered and beaten from the movie’s events. Another sees Sanhwa break through the mirror to finally make intimate contact with her aggressor on an even keel. A third, the most interesting, suggests that the events are some form of dream, fantasy, ghost story or time paradox ala Mullholland Drive (2001) or Donnie Darko (2002). We return to a beach scene we have visited before, well aware that it could not have occurred at this point in the chronology of events. Two torn photographs that seem to have been taken of a woman in pink and Han Gi before his throat injury turn into a prophecy of his and Sanhwa’s eventual relationship. Has she fulfilled the role of his fantasy woman – or has she merely taken the place of the woman on the beach who Han Gi lost before he was thrown into this world of violence and squalor?

This is the more stimulating "happy ending", but it is followed by a more depressing representation of their future – one that, whether daringly or sadistically, reaffirms Sandhwa’s willingness to debase herself and Han Gi’s role as the ringmaster in the act.

As hateful to women as Ki-duk Kim’s non-love story is, it is an uncompromising, promising piece of filmmaking that refuses to give easy answers or explanations, and brazenly leaves the audience without the usual moral justifications. Difficult to defend but impossible to ignore, this is cinema that engages the mind in an argument it doesn’t want to have.