Love is something like falling on a sword in Kim Ki-duk‘s films, or, given his characters’ tendencies toward masochism, maybe more like willfully gutting yourself on one. The couple at the focus of "Time," his latest film to receive a Stateside release ("Breath," his newest, premiered at Cannes two months ago), are relatively well-adjusted for lovers in his oeuvre, passing on the fish-hook play and forced prostitution to indulge in a slightly more acceptable form of self-mutilation. The pair, Seh-hee (Park Ji-Yeon) and Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo), have hit a lull in their two-year relationship, and Ji-woo’s eye is wandering while Seh-hee’s embarked on a downward mental spiral of jealously and brittleness. One night, when Ji-woo finds himself unable to make love to her, Seh-hee entreats him to close his eyes and pretend he’s with the girl he was checking out at their favorite coffee shop. Orgasm accomplished and having instilled an estimable amount of dread in the audience, Seh-hee has a breakdown, and the next morning has vanished, with no word to Ji-woo.
"Time" opens with a graphic opening montage of
plastic surgery footage that, along with its title and ticking clock credit sequence, seems to set up a critique of a youth- and beauty-obsessed culture. But when Seh-hee arrives at the doorstep of her local surgeon, she doesn’t want to look prettier, only completely different â€” its not the ravages of age that she’s battling, but the brevity of the human attention span. While Ji-woo bobs around heartbroken, listlessly attempting to find a new relationship, Seh-hee spends six months in recovery before reintroducing herself into his life as another woman: See-hee ("Woman is the Future of Man"‘s Seong Hyeon-a).
Kim Ki-duk has never had what you could call a light touch, and "Time" has the awkwardness of his work at its roughest, shuddering between flat-out allegory and shrill portrait of a demented relationship. We can only guess at what Seh-hee and Ji-woo were like in earlier, happier times from glimpses of a few photos; Seh-hee, pre- and post-op, seems only to alternate between shrieking, weeping and being, as Ji-woo observes, just plain scary, while Ji-woo seems noncommittal and capable of endless unthinking cruelty. And yet, before the film ventures into the realm of the isolatingly ridiculous, there is something to its morose portrayal of the trouble with men and women, and of love inconveniently enduring while novelty and passion inevitably fade. The film finds its way again and again to a coffee shop that seems the exclusive setting of break-ups, and to the island-bound Baemigumi sculpture park, where lovers gaze without recognition at sculptures that equate eroticism with grappling. These scenes play out with the strangeness and sharp edges of a BuÃ±uel film stripped of any humor â€” Seh-hee and Ji-woo return over and over to their old haunts as a couple, but are never any wiser, going to absurd lengths to return their relationship to first bloom.
"Time" opens in New York and Chicago on July 13th.
+ Time (Lifesize Entertainment)