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.