The celebrated but controversial Kim Ki-duk. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – Kim Ki-duk, the provocative and award-winning South Korean auteur, died of Covid-19 in Latvia on Friday, according to multiple reports. He was 59.

A writer-director and sometime producer, Kim leaves behind a binary legacy.

On the one hand, his gorgeous-to-look-at films captured leading awards at major international film festivals. While he never produced anything approaching a Hollywood blockbuster, his work set jaws dropping in arthouse theaters across the globe.

And at a time when South Korea was slavering for global accolades, his clutch of international awards turned Kim into something of a national hero at home.

On the other hand, the misogyny and sexual, physical and psychological abuse that were core themes of most of his films repelled many. More recently, his reputation has been blemished by allegations of real, off-screen rapes and assault.

Kim was one of a distinct trio of new-wave South Korean filmmakers who rose from the wreckage of the entertainment industry in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8.

Along with colleagues Park Chan-wook  (Old Boy) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Kim won Korean film fans well beyond domestic horizons. K-film would become, and remains, the edgiest component of Hallyu – “The Korean Wave” of pop culture – alongside the tamer K-pop and K-drama.

Kim, posing at the Venice Film Festival, wears a shirt referencing the 2013 Sewol ferry sinking, in which over 300 persons died, amid widespread allegations of government incompetence. Photo: AFP

Rape, abuse and beauty

Kim’s first work, Crocodile (1996) covers a man who saves a woman from suicide – then rapes and abuses her, and a relationship forms. Those themes would be at the heart of many of his forthcoming works.

Kim first gained global notoriety with The Isle (2000).

The film, which features stunning cinematography of waterscapes, depicts a love-triangle between an enigmatic woman, a prostitute and a man on the run.

But it includes scenes in which one character attempts suicide by swallowing fish hooks and another by inserting hooks into her vagina. The gruesome and graphic nature of The Isle reportedly caused some audience members to vomit, and others to faint.

This was taking filmic shock-jocking to a new level of creativity. Critics sat up and took notice.

TimeOut called the film “a juvenile allegory of man’s love/hate relationship with woman … at least it’s all framed in striking images, but the ideas are banal, the shock tactics are desperate and the cruelty to animals is indefensible. In sum, obnoxious.”

Even so, Kim’s films were brilliantly crafted. Take his best-known film in the West, the Buddhist parable, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring  (2003).

It plays across the screen like a dream: Bristling with Orientalia, from Buddhist paraphernalia to martial arts, it is largely set in a temple floating on a lake surrounded by forested hills.

But even Spring… with its gorgeous visuals and philosophical asides, was centered around a rape and murder committed by the monk who is the central character.

The work that won Kim his highest accolade was Pieta (2012). Shot in a Seoul light-industrial slum that has since been transformed via urban regeneration, it features a typically Kimian plot.

A loan shark – whose business model is crippling debtors to collect their medical insurance payments – encounters a woman who claims to be his mother. True to thuggish form, he molests her, but a relationship grows – then she disappears. The film ends with a spate of suicides.  

The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “The boldness of the way the writer-director-editor twists Asian horror conventions to his own purposes gives a sort of retrospective justification to the vision of extreme human ugliness and degradation that opens the film.”

Prizes globally, respect domestically

Park Chan-wook had been awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes for his ultra-violent thriller Old Boy in 2003, and Bong Joon-ho would lift the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for his Parasite in 2003. Between those two landmarks, Kim grabbed a shelf-load of awards.

He lifted the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004; in 2011 he hefted the Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2011; and in 2012, his top triumph came when he carried away the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2012.

These overseas prizes won Kim, who was something of an outsider in the Korean film industry, respect at home.

“Film critics everywhere are really snotty – his words – and he did not have a lot of formal education, as I think he had only graduated from middle school, and the industry here was not willing to recognize him because of his background,” Seoul-based film critic Nemo Kim told Asia Times. “Only when he started winning awards internationally did all these people in Korea start being friendly.”

Ever the artist, Kim liked to wear a modern version of hanbok – Korea’s traditional attire – and wore his hair in a ponytail. In his relations with the mainstream, the auteur could be “quite belligerent,” Kim, who also lectures at Soonchunhyang University, said.

That proved to be the case when this writer, at a press conference, asked Kim where he found the inspiration for his films.

Kim, seemingly annoyed by a question he said he was always asked, insisted that he did not have a particularly fertile imagination, but that his ideas came to him from simply watching the news.

Real life controversy 

In 2004, he admitted to cruelty against animals in his films. And though it could be argued that the endless brutalities committed against women in Kim’s films were an artist’s protest against misogyny, Kim himself would be engulfed in off-screen controversy when the MeToo movement exploded in Korea.

In 2017 Kim was accused of assault by an unnamed actress who had been fired from the set of his film Moebius (a work that earned a restricted rating in Korea and featured not one, but four incidences of penises being severed.) In 2018, he was accused by more actresses of rape. 

Though the rape charges were dropped for lack of evidence, Kim was fined 5 million won ($4,450) for the assault. Defamation lawsuits he filed against three accusers, and a TV documentary crew who had aired their allegations, went nowhere.

He was a complex and perhaps contradictory character.

“Kim relentless womanizing was something that was widely known in the industry for many years and both men and women in the industry found this aspect of his extremely uncomfortable,” said Kim. “Some also say he had an innocent aspect of his personality  that contradicted the violent, over-sexed side.”

Dogged by the allegations, Kim had in recent years, spent much time abroad, filming what would be his last film, Dissolve (2019) in Kazhakstan. He was reportedly seeking to buy property in Latvia when he was infected with Covid-19.

“He is a total one off. I don’t think there will be anyone like him in the future, he worked outside the system,” said Kim, the critic. “He has left us with a lot of food for thought. There is a lot of discrimination against women in the film industry and we cannot ignore these glaring problems.”