Amen: Film Review
San Sebastian Film Festival
A slight and often irritating low-budgeter produced by the director Kim Ki-duk himself, who also handled camerawork and editing.
A Korean girl zigzags around Europe looking for her lost boyfriend, while being stalked by a thief in a gas mask, in the slight and often irritating Amen from Korean art house king Kim Ki-duk. Far from being terrifying, the story has an almost comic book feeling of unreality, yet comes alive through the entrancing face and sober determination of newcomer Kim Ye-na in the main role. Though the Paris, Venice and Avignon locations give it a touristic Euro coprod look, this low-low-budgeter is actually a one-man show produced by the director himself, who also handled camerawork and editing. It will be a hard sell outside of festivals, though the abundant Christian symbolism may have some appeal for religious filmgoers.
Kim drew knowingly on Eastern religion for the spiritual underpinnings of his award-winning Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, but there is none of that film’s poetry and stylistic beauty here in the nervous hand-held HD camerawork, or the utterly modern setting on trains, subways and park benches. Nor does the use of the Western religious tradition substantially enrich the story of a lovelorn girl’s inner struggle. The parallels to the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, culminating in a long scene in a cathedral in front of a statute of the Mother and Child, are facile to say the least, although the extreme close-ups of the nameless, nearly mute heroine somehow do bridge over to French filmmaker Robert Bresson and his Catholic themes.
Stepping off a plane in Paris with a rucksack for luggage, a waif-like young woman makes a phone call, only to find the number has been disconnected. This starts off a terrible day in a strange city, searching for a man to whom she’s obviously very attached. She finds his house, but a voice over the intercom says he’s gone to Venice.
On the overnight train to Italy, where she is all alone in a sleeper car, a masked man makes his first appearance. The modern army-style gas mask he wears gives him a creepy B-film look, albeit justified by the need to spray the girl’s compartment with gas to knock her out prior to robbing her. While she’s unconscious, he takes a few extra minutes to rape her. The scene is brief and the violence takes place off-camera, but is still quite a shock. Waking up the next morning, she finds her leggings pulled down and her backpack and shoes missing.
It’s a strong set-up that generates total sympathy for the fragile-looking girl – who seems to speak nothing but Korean, but then again, she doesn’t really talk in the film. Weeping statues in the Pere Lachaise cemetery mime her inner despair, while now and then she illogically cries out her lover’s name over the rooftops. In Venice she’s told he’s just left for Avignon, and her search begins again.
The story veers into an uneasy mix of horror and symbolism when the masked man reappears and starts stalking the girl, redoubling his unwanted attentions when he discovers she’s pregnant with his baby. Though it mainly comes off as an over-extended horror film device, the anonymous gaze that stares at her from behind the gas mask is clearly intended to stand in for the voyeurism of the film camera and the audience. Since actress Kim Ye-na shares camera credit with the director, one can imagine the two passing the HD cam back and forth during scenes -- if those strands of graying hair sticking out around the mask belong to the director, as one suspects. Or possibly this is all part of an elaborate cinema game to draw the viewer into the filmmaking process.
As the stoic girl who never breathes a word about her troubles to the police, her embassy or a passing Korean tourist, the sad-eyed Kim Ye-na manages to rise above the script’s inconsistencies and leave her personal mark.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 17, 2011.
Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Cast: Kim Ye-na
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Screenwriter: Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Kim Ki-duk
Director of photography: Kim Ki-duk, Kim Ye-na
Editor: Kim Ki-duk
Sales Agent: Finecut
No rating, 72 minutes.