Saturday Editor’s Pick: Bad Guy (2001)

by on March 1, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat March 10 at 5:15 at Japan Society [Program & Tix]


Bad romance, blind love, amour fou! This spring, we screen a series of twisted, obsessive, heart-blazing love stories from Japan and Korea, because, after all, it takes two to tango and at least two to tumble.


The Japan Society hosts “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” through March 18. Saturday’s lineup features a characteristically idiosyncratic and controversial triple bill brought to you by Kim Ki-Duk, which also includes Time and Dream . Sean Axemaker promises rewards for those who can stand Bad Guy‘s audaciousness: “Uncompromising, unpleasant and emotionally brutal, this twisted love story of emotional bondage is oddly compelling.”


Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson for The Village Voice:

Bad Guy (2001), one of the seven films in Kim’s fascinating back catalog, is another kind of cocktail—simple, bitter, served straight and in an unwashed glass. The scenario’s oddball reveal is almost whimsical: A glaring thug (Jo Jae-hyeon) spots a young coed (Seo Won) in a Seoul street crowd, sits beside her on a bench, and soon enough grabs her for a kiss that soldiers have to break up. She spits on him, putting the unseen gears of vengeance and obsession in motion.

The impulsive, silent goon—who wears an impressive scar that spans the width of his throat—turns out to be a petty gangster and brothel owner, and before long the girl is implicated in a pickpocketing that lands her in the whorehouse, forced to work off her debt on her back. Of course, the rooms have two-way mirrors, and our antihero watches his prey’s fall into iniquity from the darkness. But Bad Guy isn’t actually about revenge, Park Chan-wook-style—the plot meanders, toying with the amour fou between captive and captor, and Kim never settles for a theme. The beguilingly Magritte-ish climax could be read either as an “Owl Creek” death fantasy or . . . something else, and there are moments of voyeur poetry that leave a gentle thumbprint. If anything, Bad Guy is more enigmatic than his other hyperbolic parables. Kim has been uniquely excoriated by some critics for his successes, but here’s to his entire mysterious corpus finding stateside projector time.


Time Out Film Guide:

More sexual terrorism from the self-styled bad-boy outsider of Korean cinema – or is that Korean society? Mute thug Han-Ki (Kim’s fave actor Cho) violently kisses middle-class college girl Sun-Wha (Seo) in a park – because she’s trying to ignore him. Her punishment continues when he contrives to have her press-ganged into working as a hooker in the sleaziest red-light district the director can imagine. He watches her degradation through a two-way mirror, sometimes intervening to rescue her from abusive clients, until (surprise!) she falls in love with him. This neanderthal amour fou comes garnished with Freudian symbolism (some of it intentional), plenty of absurdly hyperbolic violence and the rough visual poetry that is Kim Ki-Duk’s one intangible asset.


Scott Tobias for The Onion AV CLub:

The film works best as a passionate tale of obsessive love, with two people brought together under harrowing circumstances. Feminists are likely to balk at Kim’s idea of true romance: Cho and Seo may wind up on equal footing, but mainly on Cho’s terms and only through his awful intervention. And yet Kim creates such a lurid, seductive world for them to inhabit, it’s easy to get swept up by the film’s perverse spirit, and the weird sweetnesses exchanged between these damaged souls. Kim may have matured dramatically since making Bad Guy, but it would be a shame if he lost his edge.



Carl Lyon for Monsters At Play:

I have yet to see too many movies that truly convey the truly insane nature of love. Enter Bad Guy, Kim Ki-Duk’s love story that beats Cupid with a tire iron and leaves him for dead in a grimy alleyway. It is most certainly not a traditional “love story,” but it just seems to make so much more sense than sugary pat. If you peel back the layers of exploitative sleaze (of which there are plenty), there is one of the deepest, most heartfelt visions of love ever committed to film. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, it hit me like a truck: just because the love they have for one another is unconventional, does that render it invalid? Sure, there are some truly wrenching images that would melt even the stoniest of hearts, such as Han-ki secretly kissing the emotionally drained Sun-hwa on the cheek through the mirror on which she is resting her sobbing face, or Han-ki dragging Sun-hwa back to her room in the brothel only to hold her quietly, but the rest of the movie is the filmed equivalent of the punch in the stomach when you find out there’s no Santa Claus. It chews you up and spits you out countless times over its 100-minute running time. By the end of the movie, I felt completely drained.
But it’s a good kind of drained. Kim Ki-Duk picks at the scabs that have formed over our wounded hearts, letting them bleed again. As much as many people may shriek at Bad Guy‘s blatant misogyny or implausible concept (can one really get a loan that legally binds them into prostitution?), they’re missing the point: these are only the layers of discomfort that one has to dig through to find out that, at its core, Bad Guy has a beauty underneath all that nastiness. Ki-Duk paints his red light district of Seoul in a muted palette, leaving us focusing on the characters, especially Sun-hwa, who about halfway through the film is wearing candy-colored wigs in order to lure in johns. It’s a perverse parody of a butterfly being borne out of its cocoon, except a creature of innocent beauty metamorphoses into a common street whore. But then again, is she being forced into her state, or has she truly found her niche, doing whatever it takes to stay true to her beloved?



Steven Teo selected it as the best film of 2001, for Senses of Cinema:

The latest work by one of the most original talents in Korean cinema. Kim is shaping up as the toughest of contemporary maverick directors. Like The Isle (2000), Kim’s best known work so far, Bad Guy offers a stunning vision of the director’s raw edge originality and his taste for allegory.


G. Allen Johnson for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Kim Ki-duk doesn’t make things easy for you. His subject matter is often grim and off-putting, yet it’s impossible to turn away from his movies. The film is filled with lovely images (Kim studied painting in France), and ultimately becomes, against all expectations, quite moving.
Kim once told me in an interview for The Chronicle that some people find communication through dialogue impossible, that “violence is a kind of body language for some people, but it’s more than just violence. … I think all relationships are a collision of energy, and the tension that comes from that collision moves the world — it’s the motor of change. Without love or sex, those changes wouldn’t happen, ever.”
Only at the end does Kim falter — up until the last 15 minutes, “Bad Guy” is a masterpiece. Nevertheless the film became his first box-office success at home after years of success in Europe and at film festivals, and he has now emerged as one of the world’s most original film artists.



Martin Cleary for New Korean Cinema:

Bad Guy is a strange combination of a sleazy sex film, an unlikely love story and an examination of obsession, class, voyeurism and violence […] quite a surreal film. Visually the film is a treat, full of blindingly obvious paradoxes and ironies – the red-light district is a sea of colour and energy but it is essentially a love-less environment, Han-gi’s office is lit only by unforgiving artificial white light, and scenes on the beach are grey and cold but strangely comforting. The theme of voyeurism is explored not only through Han-gi’s two-way mirror, but scenes are often framed at a distance, or through objects such as fences and plants. Several key-images are what makes the film worthwhile – such as a moment where the two central figures are on opposite sides of the double-sided mirror cleverly symbolising role-reversal and reflection. There’s little subtlety in the film, but this is probably it’s strongest point: there are moments which may well haunt you long after viewing. This in itself makes Bad Guy almost worthy of a recommendation.



Volker Hummel talks to the director, for Senses of Cinema:

Mr Kim, you once said that the starting point for all your films is hatred. What kind of rage drives your new movie Bad Guy?

I used the word “hatred” in a larger context, and I really don’t think you should take that word out of context. The kind of hatred I was talking about was not a specific one, directed against one thing or person. Instead it is the kind of feeling that I get as I live my life and see things that I do not understand. That’s why I make movies: I see something which I do not understand and then I make a film in order to comprehend it. So maybe it’s better to talk about a misunderstanding that I have instead of hatred.
What was it that you tried to find out about the world through Bad Guy?

The question that I was trying to ask is, why is it that though everyone is born the same, with equal rights and equal qualities, we are divided and categorized as we grow older. Why are we judged according to our looks and appearances? Why does it become important if we are good looking or ugly, if we have money or not? According to these standards, which are imposed after we are born and grown up, we become divided into ranks and social classes that don’t get along with each other. I wanted to ask if it’s really impossible for these classes to get along and for their worlds to merge.
Has there been as much feminist outrage about Bad Guy as there has been about your previous films?

Yes, definitely. 90 % of the female critics gave a negative review about the movie. But if you look at the audience of the film, 80 % of the people who came to see it were women. If you look at all the specialists and critics, they mostly viewed the film in a negative way but the general audience is very receptive to it. They understand it. If you think of my film as Kim Ki-Duk creating the misfortune of the woman it depicts, then that’s very dangerous. But if you think of it as the depiction of a problem that already existed in society than you cannot really hate Bad Guy.


Hye Seung Chung in the essay “Beyond ‘Extreme’: Rereading Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment” for Journal of Film and Video:

Despite its seemingly misogynistic premise, which has been frowned upon by female critics, Bad Guy is a far cry from conventional sexploitation fare. In fact, sex scenes oftentimes take place offscreen and when depicted within the frame are presented in long shots and long takes to emphasize the pain, rather than the pleasure, experienced by female characters. There is no implication of a sexual relationship between the two protagonists, brothel thug Han-gi and college student — turned — prostitute Sôn-hwa, who gradually falls in love with this man who is responsible for her own social downfall. Upon closer scrutiny, Bad Guy is a multilayered text skillfully interweaving reality and fantasy as well as soft-porn melodrama and indictments against Korea’s class system. Ending with a bittersweet “happy ending” (framed as a mortally stabbed Han-gi’s dying dream) in which the interclass couple makes a living from roadside prostitution, Bad Guy should be taken as a reverse-Pygmalion social allegory, the flip side of George Bernard Shaw’s perennial play wherein the erudite Professor Higgins transforms the cockney-speaking flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a dignified lady.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of Bad Guy, it is vital that audiences interject an auteuristic interpretation of its “abject hero,” to borrow a phrase coined by the literary critic Michael A. Bernstein. Like the other literally and figuratively silent underdogs populating Kim’s cinema, Han-gi is a semi-autographical portrait of the director himself, someone who, before becoming an award-winning filmmaker, lived a subaltern existence as an undereducated factory worker in South Korea. In an interview with Kim So-hee, Kim Ki-duk equated filmmaking with the metaphorical act of “kidnapping those of the mainstream into [his] own space, and then introducing [himself] to them as a human being,” rather than as a lowlife (as he is sometimes depicted in the Korean press). In another interview, Kim elaborates on his authorial intention behind Bad Guy: “People look at the world of prostitutes and hoodlums and say, ‘this is trash, we need to clean this up.’ But these people’s lives deserve to be treated with respect”. As a Nietzschean cinema of ressentiment, Kim’s films derive their vitality and momentum from raw emotions such as angst, frustration, envy, and resentment — emotions felt and exhibited by disenfranchised individuals ill-equipped to survive in an ultra-competitive society where exclusive college connections or family networks are prerequisites for upward mobility.


Although Kim subsequently took a vow of silence in the wake of the film’s controversy, Brian Yecies engaged him for a friendly meeting. From Screening the Past:

I found one very surprising fact while I was reading your reviews. Many so-called film critics who consider themselves intellectuals have not interpreted Bad Guy as a metaphor nor an allegory for Korean society. It seems strange to see people reacting so harshly to your film rather than looking deeper into it. I am reminded of a quote from Adorno: “Since Art has always been indirect, the criticism about it should always be indirect.” Why do you think your critics are reacting this way?
People tend to read my work as though the narratives are reality-based. This is good. Approaching a film’s text as if it represented a real story with real characters is the right way of watching a film. This sense of realism in Bad Guy is the reason for the film’s existence.
Why does Han-Ki kiss her? There are a lot of other ways to attract her attention. He could have hit her. He could have hugged her. A kiss is an extremely intimate gesture. This kissing scene is very powerful.
A kiss has more shock value than sex here. Being forcefully kissed by a stranger in a crowded public place is very insulting. Kissing scenes in most films are conventional. They are not exciting unless they are shown in a new or different way. I think kissing is the most important kind of body language between a man and a woman.
I felt strange while watching Han-Ki and Sheon-Hwa sitting on the bench. It was like an artificial family portrait. The angle of the scene and the placement of the characters had no depth. Why did you want this shot to appear so flat?
I like filming my characters with straight angles as though they were posing for a portrait. Many of the scenes were framed like still photographs capturing a moment. This portrait-like quality of the beginning scene implied a family photo atmosphere. I also like framing characters in wide shots in order to show their whole bodies. This often creates a lot of headroom and negative space around the characters. Thus, creating flat scenes helps me establish a kind of equality between the characters.


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