After an accident on the set of his 2008 feature “Dream” almost saw the death of his lead actress, Kim Ki-Duk chose to take a three year sabbatical from filmmaking to find himself once more and to define what was really important in his life. When he returned in 2011, he did so with two unique and experimental features, “Arirang” and “Amen”, both of which are little seen. It wasn’t until the following year that Ki-Duk made his explosive return to narrative features with his stunning film “Pieta”. With “Pieta” it had appeared that this brilliant director had once again found himself and his passion for filmmaking as he delivered a revenge story unlike any other and one that only Kim Ki-Duk himself could have made. It was a glorious return to form, and like many of his previous films, was also gorgeous visually (although he had now replaced film with a digital source). Like the Kim Ki-Duk of old, “Pieta” was quickly followed up with a new feature; 2013’s “Moebius”, a film that was immediately thrust into the spotlight after it was banned in South Korea. While Kim Ki-Duk had never shied away from controversial subjects before, this was the first time one of his features had been banned in his homeland. Eventually after much negotiation with the Korean Censorship Board and with significant trims performed on the film, “Moebius” did end up being released in South Korea. So what was all of the controversy about and was it warranted?
“Moebius” is an entirely dialogue-free film that opens at a morning breakfast of a family that consists of a mother, father and their teenage son. The father’s mobile phone begins to ring and the mother knows that it is from her husband’s mistress. Incensed, she attempts to wrestle the phone free from him but without success. Although we are not privy to the conversation that takes place, it is obvious that the man has organized a date with this other woman much to the heartbreak of his wife. Later that night , the two indeed hook up for a rendezvous at a little restaurant in town, and are then coincidentally spotted by the man’s son, who is shocked by his father’s infidelity. The son follows his father and his mistress until they reach a car where he witnesses this infidelity in a purely physical form. The boy seems entranced, as he stands there watching but it is in this moment that we realize that he is not the only witness to the events unfolding. The man’s wife has followed him and seen everything that has taken place, including the presence of her son. It all becomes too much for the poor woman to take, and her mind snaps and insanity takes hold. Later that night back at home, the woman decides that she has had enough and she is going to do something. She checks on her son to make sure he is asleep but instead finds the boy masturbating. Disgusted by what she assumes is her son pleasuring himself over her husband’s infidelity, the woman quietly enters her bedroom and attempts to sever her husband’s penis from the rest of his body. Just before she is able to do so, the man awakens and quickly kicks her off the bed. Almost in a purely reactive state and not thinking about her consequent actions, the woman then bursts into her teenage son’s room and succeeds in doing to him what she couldn’t to her husband, before fleeing the household entirely. With the young boy bleeding profusely and screaming in pain, it suddenly hits the man what his selfishness has cost the rest of his family. This is the opening ten minutes of “Moebius” and from here on, the film gets really disturbing.
As you should be able to tell from the opening paragraph, “Moebius” is a seriously disturbing film that heads further down the path of rape, self mutilation, incest and murder, as the film goes on. Anyone familiar with Kim Ki-Duk and his films would know that he has tackled the majority of these themes before in past works, but personally, I just didn’t think he was as successful here as he has been in the past. It almost felt that everything that existed in “Moebius” was just there to shock and that there was no real purpose to the film. Actually that is not entirely correct because I understand that Kim Ki-Duk has an agenda with the film, one that has Buddhist angle, but he just doesn’t deliver it in a manner that is easy to understand, which ultimately makes “Moebius” a frustrating movie experience. What makes it so frustrating is that there are moments that are totally brilliant, however there are more moments that are equally absurd. It almost comes across as an immature piece of work; one with not a lot of thought put behind it. Even from a visual standpoint, the digital photography often looks sloppy with rough and shaky camerawork sadly being the norm. That said, even within these camera moves, there are images that are absolutely gorgeous (perfect to sell the film via stills) but more often than not, “Moebius” has a very cheap look to it. This is probably true though; I cannot imagine that “Moebius” had a large budget at all but with “Pieta”, Kim Ki-Duk was able to hide these deficiencies where he cannot here.
Where the film does excel at is in its performances. Everyone involved gives their heart and soul to their characters; all of them having to go to a very dark place within their psyches. As good as Seo Young-Ju and Jo Jae-Hyeon both are as son and father respectively, for me the performance(s) that stole “Moebius” was that of Lee Eun-Woo who plays victim and victimizer with equal aplomb. Kim Ki-Duk chose to cast Eun-Woo in both the female roles in the film, so she is playing the mother and the woman who her husband is having an affair with. This is an incredibly bold decision by Ki-Duk and one that pays off handsomely because Eun-Woo is very successful at portraying two completely different characters. To be honest, she was so good that I did not realize it was the same actress playing both roles until the end credits came up. Eun-Woo gets to portray both sides of the coin here; playing the nice, caring and ironically maternal side when she is the mistress, while in portraying the mother, she excels in exposing the woman’s darkness and deteriorating mental state. Personally I thought she was chilling as the mother, with her crazy messed hair and her demented smile.
Near the beginning of this review I mentioned that “Moebius” is completely dialogue free, and for those familiar with the cinema of Kim Ki-Duk, I’m sure this decision comes as no shock. Ki-Duk’s films have never relied on dialogue to tell the story and as such, it’s always been kept to a minimum. It just seemed like a natural progression that he eventually would make a film that excises dialogue completely and let his images tell the story completely. However, “Moebius” was the wrong film to try this. There were a number of times during the film that I felt that dialogue was needed to really get across the emotional intensity of what was happening on screen, particularly during certain moments between the father and son. It all felt really forced and not at all organic to the film. Instead of giving a sense of poetry (like in the moments of silence seen in “The Isle”), the lack of talking here felt false and almost made it seem as if the characters we were watching were mute. The fact that the idea doesn’t work at all, really does shock me, because I think Kim Ki-Duk is a master at letting images tell a story and only using dialogue when necessary, but he really fumbled the ball here because it shows that by not including dialogue when it is needed, it can hurt your film just as much as when you overuse it.
Overall, I found Kim Ki-Duk’s latest film to be a bit of a disappointment, particularly after the stellar “Pieta”. While “Moebius” is certainly an interesting film, Ki-Duk’s handling of the material is immature and a little muddled, making his intentions behind the film frustratingly obtuse (surely he is saying more than "cheaters never prosper"). Due to the extreme nature of the film and its themes, it is safe to say that this film isn’t for everyone, particularly because it goes to some very dark places (although ironically I’m sure if you asked Kim Ki-Duk, he would say that the ending is a happy one), but if you are interested in dark cinema like this, I implore you to go in as cold as you can, knowing as little about the film as possible. While this is not a favourite of mine from this great director, I know that there are many already championing this film and because of this I recommend viewing “Moebius” at least once to make up your own mind whether its genius or disappointment.