In an early scene in Kim Ki-duk's existential suspense film Time, photographer Ha Jung-woo is having a hard time getting sexually aroused by his insanely jealous girlfriend Park Ji-yun. So she whispers a fantasy into his ear, asking him to pretend that she's someone else. And though the trick works, it doesn't do much to boost Park's self-confidence. So she makes the drastic decision to disappear from Ha's life, and then, after extensive plastic surgery, to return with a new face and a new name. But if Ha's ex-girlfriend—now played by Seong Hyeon-ah—can get Ha to love her as a stranger, will it be proof of her intrinsic worth, or proof that Ha's an unfaithful bastard?
Time has an unbeatable premise, and writer-director Kim could've taken it in just about any direction, from black comedy to poetic romance to Hitchcockian dread to trenchant social commentary. It's a minor disappointment when he tries to do everything at once—in his preoccupation with scattered genre effects, he literally loses the plot. One of Time's major themes concerns the way that bored or jilted lovers obsessively try to recreate the conditions under which they used to be happy, so Kim has Ja and Seong returning to the same coffee shop and same sculpture garden, taking the same pictures and having the same conversations. Sometimes the scenes are meant to be sweet, sometimes creepy, and sometimes—with the aid of some overly blunt dialogue about image-consciousness—even scathing. But in practice, the constant repetition proves frustrating, especially given Time's potential for a much more involved, engaging story.
And yet few modern filmmakers are as adept at crafting a haunting image as Kim. Whether it's Park pulling a bedsheet taut over her face to look as anonymous as possible, or Seong cutting up her old snapshots and walking across them like stepping stones, Kim has a way of grounding the weirdness of a situation in a concrete, comprehensible vision. In Time, Kim dwells a lot on sculptures that look like bodies and bodies transformed into sculptures, contemplating how we try to freeze some aspects of ourselves while completely remaking others. And throughout, the movie carries a sour surge of anger, primarily at women who play impossible head games with their mates. Time could almost be written off as misogynistic, except that it's so specific about its rage. It's almost as though Kim was so fed up with having the same argument with his girlfriend, all he could do was make a movie.