In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Of the contemporary directors I’d include among my favorites, Kim Ki-duk may be the hardest to defend. That’s partly because he’s made as many terrible films as terrific ones—more, actually, now that I look. (For the record, I’d file Time, 3-Iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring in the hit column, whereas The Isle, The Bow, Breath, Dream, and especially Arirang are all painful whiffs.) But it’s also a matter of his sensibility, which can create the false impression that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, even in his stronger works. A cinephile friend of mine once referred to Kim as a “mitten-fingered primitive,” which is such a wonderfully pungent phrase that I just laughed at it and moved on at the time. What’s frustrating, though, is that Kim can demonstrate amazing formal control, even if he often deliberately chooses to abandon it. There’s a weird element of self-sabotage that runs through his entire oeuvre, and it’s gotten the better of him in recent years. (Last year’s surprise Venice prizewinner, Pieta, is outright schizoid.)
As a riposte to my buddy, though, I’d like to examine one very brief scene in Time that’s all about dexterity, both in front of and behind the camera. It takes place on a ferry between the mainland and a small island that features a bizarre sculpture park. Our hero, Ha Jung-woo, has just been dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Park Ji-Yeon), who decided that his inability to get it up without thinking of other women must mean that he’s tired of her boring old face. In a previous scene, we saw Park consulting a plastic surgeon—plastic surgery is apparently a very big thing in South Korea, which has led to some misguidedly literal interpretations of what the film is about—but Ha has no idea where she went. She just disappeared without a word or a trace. In a funk, he heads to the island, which the two of them had previously visited together. And on the ferry, he encounters a woman who he doesn’t exactly recognize, but who clearly intrigues him nevertheless. The two of them proceed to have a conversation, of sorts. It goes like this:
I’ve been writing Scenic Routes for four years now, and this is by far the shortest clip I’ve ever analyzed, running just a little over a minute. That’s all that’s necessary. There are 24 shots, each one perfectly judged in relation to those before and after. It’s as expertly constructed as any formalist could desire. Shot one establishes the ferry—and it’s significant that there are actually two ferries, pointing in opposite directions. The one on the right has a line of cars waiting to board; Ha’s Jeep drives onto the other one. Shot two picks him up from the opposite angle, and now the cars waiting to board the other ferry are gone. Having seen Room 237, I’m leery of ascribing too much significance to what could very easily just be a continuity error, but it’s nonetheless interesting that Ha chooses what appears to be the proverbial “road less traveled,” which suggests unfamiliarity, on his way to an exercise in nostalgia, and that it’s immediately revealed that his choice was an illusion. Certainly it fits snugly with the encounter he’s about to have with a woman who both is and isn’t his ex-girlfriend—and is in fact currently in metamorphosis.
Now comes shot three, in which Ha enters the ferry’s seating area. The previous two shots were stationary, but Kim executes a short, quick pan from left to right as Ha opens the door, because he wants to draw our attention, subtly, to the mirror reflection of the mystery woman. (I’m just gonna call her Park from now on, since there’s no real question about her identity to the viewer—only to Ha.) She’s out of focus at this point, and so is the kid with the soccer ball, who, in a stellar bit of economy, is likewise established in the mirror. And the visual emphasis on obscured vision continues in shot four, which sees Ha sit down in a spot that puts him partially behind a pillar, itself out of focus. Since the movie is about the inability to see what’s right in front of you, this couldn’t be more deliberate; you can see how “wrong” the composition looks by classical standards. And note that while Ha is looking in Park’s direction, there’s no indication on his face that he sees her before the cut to shot five: a wide view of the seating area with Park not quite dead center and nothing obscuring our view. Our view. Shot six cuts back to Ha, who now does visibly react… and he has to lean past the pillar, which takes up the right third of the frame. And shot seven—his view—prominently features the out-of-focus pillar at frame left as the camera pans upward.
Shot eight starts the ball rolling, literally, and the game of keep-away takes up the remainder of the scene, apart from the last two shots. Even on paper, this is a pretty great idea. You’ve got the general uneasy weirdness of Park’s giant sunglasses and her surgical mask outfitted with thick red lips, and you’ve got this sadistic meet-cute in which the man and woman—who, as far as Ha knows, have yet to speak a word to each other—engage in symbolic foreplay by jointly messing with some random kid. (Love the peeved slap as his frustration mounts. He’s not enjoying this.) But the specific shot sequence Kim engineers here is the opposite of clumsy and crude. The cycle of cuts from kicking feet to rolling ball to running child, with frequent tilts upward from the ball to either Park or Ha, achieves a magnificent rhythmic tension, accentuated by the instances that Kim deliberately violates it. The most notable of these occurs on Ha’s second kick back to Park (of three), when Kim fakes the disappearance that we instinctively know is coming by following the ball right to the point where the tilt upward should happen, then cutting to an unprecedented side view of the kid running (in every other shot he’s moving toward or away from the camera, not parallel to it), then cutting back to the ball and finding Park with the tilt after all. That move makes it all the more effective when she’s no longer sitting there on the very next pass.
Obviously, this is a cheat, in that there’s no possible way she could get out of sight that quickly, much less without Ha noticing. But that’s a thriller convention we all accept, even if Time isn’t really a thriller. (Nor is it really about plastic surgery, as I say. Its true subject is the eternal war between desire and familiarity, as negotiated against our will by—drumroll please—time.) Ha looks around, bewildered, and the final shot moves from inside the seating area to outside, viewing his confusion through the window. The suddenly unstable camera and the ominous music cue strongly suggest that we’ve adopted Park’s point of view in this shot, as she observes him from whatever hiding place she’s magically found. But the shot has another function as well—one that perhaps justifies my earlier reading of the dual-ferry setup. Because hey, whaddaya know, there’s the other ferry, reflected in the window! It’s possible that the first couple of shots simply made use of a pre-existing location (and it’s still possible that I’m overthinking the vanishing cars), but Kim has made a serious effort to remind us of the second ferry as the sequence ends. And that’s just not the kind of carefully considered elegance one associates with mitten-fingered primitives. You were wrong, Chris. Kim can deliberately dazzle when he tries. Why he doesn’t try more often, I don’t know.