Back at the start of the last decade, when my fascination with South Korean cinema first began, one of the directors I immediately gravitated towards was Kim Ki-Duk. In those days, he was making quite brutal and violent dramas (such as “Bad Guy”) and the darkness within his films is what drew me to him. However he continued to evolve as an artist and soon he started showing a softer and more poetic side to his work and began creating masterpieces like “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…..And Spring” and “3-Iron”. International critics and audiences suddenly stood up and took notice of Kim Ki-Duk’s work like never before and he soon became a festival darling. One of Ki-Duk’s strengths was his speed in making films, without suffering any loss of quality, where between the years of 1996 – 2008 he completed fifteen features. However after 2008’s “Dream”, he took a sabbatical of three years between features, after creatively burning himself out. Somewhere along the line, I too must have become burnt out because I never got around to watching “Dream” when it was first released. Similar to what happened with my addiction to Shinya Tsukamoto films, I found myself ignoring (although not deliberately) films from a director I used to rush out and see whenever he had a new one out. This week, Kim Ki-Duk’s return to narrative filmmaking “Pieta” premiered at the Venice Film Festival and after reading a review of that film, I was inspired to finally check out his 2008 feature “Dream”.
“Dream” tells the rather strange tale about two unconnected people who are tied together via dreams. Jin, a Japanese man, awakens after having a very vivid dream about a hit and run car accident he has caused whilst following his ex-girlfriend home. He feels an odd strangeness about the dream, mainly because it felt so real and he knew the area where the dream took place. Jin hops in his car and drives to the location where his dream occurred only to be shocked to find that everything he had dreamed had come true, however there was no possible way he could have been driving the car. After examining some traffic cameras, the police identify their suspect in the case, Ran, a Korean woman who has no memory of the incident even though her car bares all of the markings of having been involved in an accident. For some reason Jin is sure that Ran is innocent and that he is to blame for the accident, and after questioning Ran some more he realizes that Ran is a sleepwalker and that more recent incidents of her walking mirror dreams that he has had. After visiting Ran’s sleep therapist, she works out that the two of them are like one, but at different ends of the spectrum. Jin has just been dumped by his girlfriend he loves, while Ran had just dumped a boyfriend she despises. What the therapist works out is that when Jin dreams of his girlfriend, Ran sleepwalks and acts out Jin’s dream but in regards to her ex-boyfriend. For example if Jin dreams of confronting his ex’s new boyfriend, she in turn will confront her ex’s new girlfriend. As the therapist explains, they are one, she is his yin to her yang and this will continue until they can co-exist by falling in love. Seeing as the two are strangers this is unlikely to happen so the two must continue to live but never to sleep at the same time or suffer the consequences that may occur.
I must admit that as soon as the film began, I realized just how much I had missed Kim Ki-Duk and his work, but while there is a lot to like about “Dream”, it is a terribly uneven film. There is not a consistent tone throughout the piece and it suffers because of it. It starts off well enough with the opening dream sequence and when we first meet our characters. It sets up the necessary drama well and atmospherically but when it comes to the scenes of the couple trying to stay awake, the film becomes a little farcical and comedic (something very strange for a Kim Ki-Duk film) and it causes a jarring effect. Also the way Jin goes about trying to keep himself awake by cutting or stabbing himself often seem to be added just for shock value.
The strangest thing about “Dream” is not the dreams themselves but the fact that the two main characters, Jin and Ran, speak completely different languages throughout the film and it is never once mentioned. Jin speaks Japanese, whilst Ran, Korean. It is very strange but I cannot believe that a director like Kim Ki-Duk could just be accommodating his Japanese lead, Jo Odagiri, rather I am sure that he is making some kind of point here. The exact nature of this point I am unsure of but I am assuming that it either has to do with the fact that in dreams, language is no barrier, or he is making a statement, that he believes that people never really listen and understand anyone else in today’s society. It is a very odd thing to hear but strangely it never destroyed my enjoyment of the film at all. Performance wise, Odagiri does an admirable effort, but I think there were times when he played Jin too soft and he needed to have more of an edge in parts, to have more gravity in a scene. He does have a nice scene after Ran asks Jin to stop dreaming of his girlfriend, and he tries to explain that he likes dreaming of her and he is not ready to give that up. I think Odagiri got this scene exactly right. Lee Na-Yeong’s portrayal of Ran is so cold and emotionless, that I found it incredibly hard to warm up to her character. She is incredibly selfish and never wants to put herself out to help with the situation and yet wants Jin to give up everything, she is such a pain. Towards the end of the film, Jin comes to visit Ran. He is a bloody mess after trying to keep himself awake for her, but his pain barely registers with Ran who gazes at him blankly.
The look of the film was, typically for Kim Ki-Duk, just gorgeous. Kim Gi-Tae’s images during the normal dramatic scenes are superb, however the look and design the two men went for during the dream sequences were a bit of a miscalculation. There is nothing dream-like at all about these scenes; instead they come across as very cheap looking. The style used is similar to the frame-stepping look that Wong Kar Wai used in his blurred images in “Chungking Express” and “Ashes Of Time”, although not quite as dramatic as those films, the technique just does not work well at all here. Part of the fun of films involving dreamscapes is the dreams themselves, but in “Dream” they were the least successful part of the film. Instead here we really want Jin to wake up so we can see exactly what Ran has done in reality. Being a Kim Ki-Duk film, you know that the story is going to take a turn towards the dark side of human nature, and it does as Jin starts to have more and more disturbing dreams about his ex. My problem with this is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because this is a man who still loves this girl so to dream of hurting her does not ring true, rather it seems more of a plot convenience, a way to forward the story.
Most of Kim Ki-Duk’s films seem to have at least one iconic moment in them, and there is a truly sublime scene in “Dream” when all four characters (Jin, Ran and their exes) come together in a field and have a criss-crossing argument with identities constantly changing throughout the scene. I am not sure if this is some sort of shared dream between Jin and Ran, or if it is just a visual way to describe the back story of each character as they are telling it to the other, but whatever it is, it is the standout moment of the film. It is stunningly photographed, beautifully acted and immaculately directed and “Dream” is worth seeing if just for this scene.
The ending of “Dream” is quite odd and seems to exist on some sort of metaphysical level, but it also seems to come out of nowhere. While images of butterflies are constant throughout “Dream” and very near the end, Ran begins her bizarre twitching; I must say that I was not ready at all for what happens at the end of this film. Apparently the basis to the ending has to do with a Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly, but upon awakening from the dream he questioned whether he was really a butterfly dreaming he was a man instead. Make no mistake, the ending is very beautiful but again, I do not think it is believable because it doesn’t really work within what has come before it story-wise (I find it very hard to believe in the love story at all).
Overall, while I liked a lot of Kim Ki-Duk’s fifteenth film “Dream” (I loved watching Jin making or carving those stamps), in the end I would probably call the film an interesting failure. He came up with a very unique idea or concept, but unfortunately he didn’t take it anywhere really interesting. That said, a mediocre film from Ki-Duk is probably better than most director’s good films. I cannot believe that it had been five years since I had watched a Ki-Duk film, but even with its flaws, watching “Dream” has once again made me realize just how good a director he is and how much I have missed his work. The fire has been re-lit inside me once again and I am now greatly looking forward to his latest film, “Pieta”.