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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

A sculptor of the self

Kim Ki Duk, director of "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," gives an impression of great strength. At the same time, though, he seems vulnerable, almost fragile.

News photo
Kim Ki Duk

During the interview his voice was low and gentle and he could hardly bring himself to raise his eyes from underneath his dark baseball cap. It was only when the photographer requested outright that his cap came off, he squared his shoulders and stared full-force into the camera lens. "That's good," said the photographer, clicking away. "Now can you give us a smile and look like the 'Bad Guy'?"

"The Bad Guy" is the film that put Kim's name on the map in Japan; the one that had excited critics proclaiming him to be even better than Takashi Miike, Japan's poet laureate of violence and gore. But facing him across the table, it's hard to bridge the gap between this shy, soft-spoken man and his reputation as South Korea's foremost bad-boy director. It's even harder to believe that this is the same man who made the resplendent Buddhist fable "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring."

The work enthralled international film festival audiences, and it seemed that overnight Kim had gone from talented-but-underground Korean director to one of the most important Asian filmmakers of the year. Kim smiles a little self-deprecatingly at this, and says, "Western people really seem to like this movie. I guess I managed to hit the right buttons. I was worried that it was too religious or 'Oriental,' but I'm glad it worked."

What instigated this monumental change, this leap from irreverent violence to a tale of two monks?

"Well, I had reached a point in my life when I wanted to step back and do some reckoning. Having reached my mid-40s now, I just had to ask myself hard questions like, why did I choose this path and what was the meaning of my life and all that. This movie was a way for me to work all that out. Not that I got any answers, but the process helped."

Was the fact that Kim cast himself in the role of the adult monk also part of the process? "Not really," he says, blushing a little. "I'm not an actor, and had no intention of making an appearance, but we couldn't get anyone. . . . Time was running short because filming had to be done when the lake was frozen over thickly enough to walk on. It was imperative that the adult monk walk over that ice and into the temple. The conditions were favorable for only about a week. So I just decided to go ahead. We were under severe budget constraints anyway."

And what are his ties to Buddhism, in spite of being raised as a Christian? "It's true I'm not a Buddhist. But in Korea, Buddhism is part of the daily fabric of life. My mother and grandmother took me to the temple, not for religious reasons but because it was just the thing to do. Buddhism and its teachings came very naturally to me, whereas I had to sit down and learn what Christianity was all about."

Kim goes on to say that, aesthetically speaking, he found Buddhist architecture and sculpture "very soothing," adding that there are many Buddhism-related artisans in Korea, some of whom had been hired to create the artwork for this movie. Kim himself is an accomplished sculptor, and the scene of him carving a Buddha statue out of ice is an impressive moment.

Kim describes this work as "the most autobiographical" of all his works, even though none of the incidents in the story matched any events in his own life. Interestingly, during the filming, he was often visited by memories of his time in the Korean Marines, in which he served for five years: an inordinately long time in an extremely harsh environment.

"I could have moved out of the marines to some other, easier section. I could have quit. But I elected to stay and go through this awful, strenuous time. It's what I wanted to do. Nothing in my life, before or after, matches the level of suffering I endured in the Korean Marines. But it formed me, shaped me into what I am today. Like the monk in the movie, I became equipped to face difficulties without flinching. And I'm thankful for that."

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