'Stop': Karlovy Vary Review
Veteran Korean shock merchant Kim Ki-duk shows his more restrained side in this Japanese drama set in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
A prolific provocateur with a fondness for taboo subject matter, the Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk is a master of highbrow sensationalism, but his quality control is deeply erratic. Just two years ago, he won the Golden Lion in Venice for his religiously infused loan-shark thriller Peita, which South Korea later nominated as its official Oscar contender. He followed that with Moebius, a wordless depiction of relentless sexual savagery that troubled a few censors. But these eroticized exertions appear to have left Kim spent, became his latest feature is a strangely limp and passionless affair.
A world premiere at this week's Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Stop is an ecologically themed drama set in contemporary Japan which lacks not just plausibility but also Kim's signature extremes of sex and violence. A minor work from an eccentric talent, it should earn further festival berths on the strength of its author's reputation. But without his more marketable elements of lurid excess, the film's slender commercial afterlife will be limited to dedicated hardcore fans and possibly ultra-niche distributors.
The starting point to Stop is the Fukushima disaster of March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown in three of the plant's nuclear reactors. A young couple, Miki (Natsuko Hori) and Sabu (Tsubasa Nakae), live within the danger zone and witness its aftermath. Soon afterwards they are evacuated to Tokyo, where a mysterious government agent contacts the pregnant Miki and pressures her to abort her baby, insisting it will be deformed by radiation exposure. Sabu violently objects, partly due to parental pride, but also because the alleged agent is plainly some kind of creepy imposter whose motives are never explained. Miki is initially torn, but eventually concludes that an abortion is necessary.
Sabu then goes into nuclear meltdown himself, tying up Miki with heavy-duty adhesive tape before heading back to Fukushima alone, on a mission to gather photographic proof that the radiation has not caused damage to wildlife. “Human beings are not that weak,” he insists, "this is not Chernobyl.” But among the flood-damaged ruins he finds some disturbing sights. The film's final act involves a vengeful young man (Hiromitsu Takeda) who sells radioactive meat to city dwellers and a comically amateurish terrorist plot to shut down Tokyo's electricity supply by toppling a giant pylon with small power tools. There is also a horror-movie birth scene which ends in a bloodbath, but even this feels oddly timid and understated by Kim's standards.
Produced, directed, written, shot and edited by Kim, Stop has a cramped look and ragged, hand-held feel to match its overcooked performances and undercooked plot. If the intention was to make a serious eco-protest drama, Kim's delivery is woefully sloppy, full of loose ends and repetitive dialogue that gives it the strained logic of an improvised student project at times. If black comedy was his motive, most of the jokes are lost in translation.
As in many of Kim's films, the male characters routinely act like psychopaths while the women are brutalized, and yet this deranged behavior is seemingly all forgotten and forgiven by the next scene. Such poor command of tone and continuity might work in the director's more pulpy and stylized work, but it jars in a broadly naturalistic drama like this. Stop concludes with a series of placards about the dangers posed by proliferating nuclear plants across the globe. This may well be Kim's ploddingly sincere take on a serious matter, but it feels like a cheap attempt to add gravitas to a film that would otherwise barely register on the Richter scale of amateurish melodrama.
Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Cast: Natsuko Hori, Tsubasa Nakae, Hiromitsu Takeda
Director, screenwiter, cinematographer, editor, producer: Kim Ki-duk
Sales company: Finecut, Korea
Unrated, 85 minutes