Just before Kim Ki-duk, the former "bad boy" of Korean cinema, suddenly and shockingly reformed with the gentle Zen story-cycle Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring and the quirky romance 3-Iron, he fired off Bad Guy, the sort of provocation that burns the festival circuit. Bad Guy has been released following the signs that Kim's lightened up, but how can viewers reconcile the old Kim and the new Kim, short of suspecting some body-snatching switcheroo? Still, looking beyond the ugly sadism, voyeurism, and dubious sexual politics in Bad Guy—and Kim's fishhook-ingesting breakthrough The Isle, for that matter—it's possible to see that he's been a softie all along, fully believing that love and tenderness will transcend humanity's darkest instincts. Take away the extreme degradation and agony visited on Bad Guy's characters, and there's no strong ballast for their relationship, no common ground on which to stand.
Away from the neon pastels of Seoul's red-light district, where he lords over a gang of pimps, Cho Je-Hyun looks distinctly out of place, a glowering lowlife who inspires fear but not respect. When he tries to sit next to pretty college student Seo Won on a park bench, the woman turns up her nose and retreats into the arms of her preppie boyfriend. His pride damaged, Cho responds by forcefully kissing her, an action that draws a beating from the soldiers passing by and prompts Seo to spit in his face as a final humiliation. But through a wildly improbable series of events, Cho contrives to force the virginal woman into working off her debts in a street-side brothel. Yet as he watches Seo through a double mirror, Cho's hatred and lust for revenge melts into a strange sort of affection, and his sympathies transform their relationship and put him into danger.
Somewhere past the halfway point, Bad Guy drifts off into a mysterious and obscure comment on fate, as Seo digs up pieces of a photograph on the beach and reconstructs them into a possible vision of her own future. But 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.