BERLIN—The #MeToo movement has arrived in South Korea with a vengeance and the Berlin Film Festival is reaping the consequences.
In December, the famous—according to some notorious—South Korean director Kim Ki-duk paid a fine imposed by a court for repeatedly slapping an actress, who prefers not to be named, during production of the 2013 film Moebius. Although the actress claimed that Kim also coerced her to perform several sexual acts against her will during the shoot before replacing her, the court found him innocent of sexual-assault charges.
A detailed article in The Jakarta Post reports that the anonymous actress is “hurt” by Berlin’s decision to screen Kim’s latest film, Human, Space, Time and Human in the non-competitive Panorama sidebar. According to the Post, the aggrieved woman believes that since “the #MeToo campaign is not so active in Korea… People in the industry, who are well known, should stand up first and make a difference.” Meanwhile, a coalition of about 140 South Korean civic groups sent a joint statement to AFP on Thursday protesting Kim’s appearance in Berlin: “We are living in this unfair reality in which a physical assault offender is working and being welcomed everywhere as if nothing happened, while the victim who spoke out against the abuse is being isolated and marginalized.”
Addressing the controversy during a Saturday press conference, Kim remarked, “There is indeed a regrettable case, which happened four years ago. I have explained and answered in court. The public prosecutor identified my slapping the actress as problematic… We were rehearsing a scene, with a lot of people present. My crew did not say it was inappropriate at the time. The actress interpreted it differently. There has been a ruling. I don’t entirely agree with it, but I have shouldered the responsibility. And such rulings are part of the process of changing the film industry.”
When asked if he would like to apologize for slapping the actress, Kim replied, “No. I find it regrettable that this was turned into a court case.”
This imbroglio involving the behavior of a divisive figure in the Korean film industry, a man who has, on the one hand, been awarded prizes by major film festivals and earned a following among devotees of Asian “extreme cinema” and, on the other, been condemned as a talentless provocateur by well-regarded critics, raises thorny questions concerning programming, artistic expression, censorship, and the ongoing feminist movement to declare “time’s up” for male abuse and odious sexual conduct.
It’s probably important to emphasize that, unlike, say, Roman Polanski, Kim is not, despite his cult status and film festival prizes, a critics’ darling. Films such as Pieta, The Isle, and Moebius—which bombard audiences with scenes foregrounding incest, cannibalism, and self-mutilation—have frequently been branded misogynistic exercises in gratuitous button-pushing. A widely discussed 2004 Film Comment piece by Asian cinema specialist Tony Rayns labeled Kim South Korean cinema’s “overrated poster boy.” When Pieta inexplicably won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2012, I wrote in the Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope that “it’s possible that Pieta’s account of debt collector Lee Kang-do’s metamorphosis from a brutal killer into a near life-affirming softie once his long-lost mother arrives on the scene could be credible in the hands of a director less willing to alternate between ham-fisted violence and bathetic plot twists.” It should also be noted that Pieta is a film that features a scene in which the protagonist’s mother feasts on a piece of his flesh while he proceeds to shove his hand into her vagina.
The controversy that currently swirls around the ethics of Berlin’s selection process poses a number of vexing questions. Festivals are mandated to pick and choose, but once a film is accepted, ostensibly because of its artistic quality, does this decision also imply endorsement of a director’s behavior? Does classic ACLU-style liberalism require that we defend all of these choices, however questionable they might be? Or can we question them without being called de facto censors? Panorama head Paz Lazaro urges us “not to accept quick answers to complicated questions.” But since Berlin’s head Dieter Kosslick has indicated that certain films weren’t accepted in 2018 because of troubling issues involving sexual misconduct, one is tempted to ask: What director’s behavior could have been worse than Kim’s purported transgressions?
Given that these questions are concrete dilemmas facing festival and repertory cinema programmers on a daily basis, I reached out to several distinguished programmers for feedback to this ongoing scandal. After all, film programmers have no choice but to confront the entire history of cinema (retrospectives, as well as new films, are a vital part of any decent festival’s agenda) and, from its inception, film history has been littered with examples of gratuitous misogyny.
Most of those I queried refused to break with collegiality and comment on Berlin’s quagmire. A programmer at a well-regarded European festival wrote that the very subject was a “minefield.” Quite understandably, programmers are loath to comment on, or criticize, their peers.
Robert Koehler, who has programmed films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Qingdao International Film Festival, and Acropolis Cinema in Los Angeles, proved a notable exception. His response pithily outlines the contours of the hard choices faced by international festivals: “There’s only one filmmaker who’s on my permanent shit list as a programmer, and that’s Kim Ki-duk. He’s a loathsome filmmaker and having heard several accounts, in Asia and elsewhere, a loathsome person. So this story hardly surprises. It just reinforces. But that’s my artistic decision regarding this filmmaker. Every festival has their own to make, and they must always have the greatest possible latitude in their choices. A festival can invite anybody they want as long as that person isn’t in legal jeopardy, or considered a public danger. (I know of festivals inviting drug-addicted directors known for making demands that they’re drug-of-choice be supplied to them.) After all, unless the person is being invited for jury participation, it’s their movie that’s being invited, and the artist is coming along for the ride… Programmers have to apply the wisdom that critics must apply: Trust the art, not the artist.”
Of course, as Koehler points out, since Kim actually paid a penalty for one aspect of his behavior, this case is not an example of “innocent until proven guilty.” Kim has offered the rather implausible excuse that “riling up” his actress was necessary to elicit a convincing performance. In the era of #MeToo, it’s doubtful that the international film community will cut him much slack for that rationalization.
And, based on its own merits or lack thereof, how can one assess Human, Space, Time, and Human without recourse to the details of the current controversy? The film is a tedious, pseudo-existentialist slog, a tale revolving around an odd cruise taken by a motley assortment of passengers on a battleship bound for nowhere. A politician, traveling with his grown son, is encouraged by a gangster pulling the strings to rape a young woman. Although the unfortunate woman’s husband is killed, she lives on after the ship becomes stranded in a bizarre netherworld. The ship’s food supply is threatened, but the traumatized rape victim witnesses an old man transforming dead human flesh, by dint of some mysterious process, into food for the survivors.
In short, it’s a typically sensationalistic, if ultimately vacuous, Kim Ki-duk film. For better or worse, this movie will probably become better known for sparking debate within the film community than for its value as an addition to an auteur’s dubious resume.