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After the screening of his film The Isle at Sundance in 2001, Kim Ki-duk, then just an emerging director, made a small wire sculpture of a man on a swing, and gave it to Roger Ebert, hoping the critic would give him a favorable review. But Kim says he later felt humiliated about the overture, believing that asking for such favors is shameful for an artist. It’s precisely this uncompromising, rigorous approach to moviemaking that Kim is now known for on the festival circuit. Little over a decade later, he’s directed 18 films. His latest effort, Pieta, tells the story of a deranged, merciless debt collector. Made for just $13,000, the film won the Golden Lion Award at this year’s Venice International Film Festival and was recently selected as South Korea’s official foreign language submission to the Academy Awards. Shortly before BIFF, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Kim in a bustling section of southern Seoul.
South Korea has put forward Pieta as its official submission to the 85th Oscar’s. How do you think it will resonate with the Academy?
We’re trying to figure that out. Our U.S. distributor noted that the film’s subject matter is very interesting but some scenes could be overwhelming psychologically. I think if you can bear the beginning, the interest of the subject matter and storyline soon become evident. Pieta delves into the discord of human relations within an extreme capitalist system, as it shows how family gets disrupted and money creates distrust between people. I think this is a universal experience not only in South Korea but also in Europe and U.S.
The film’s religious overtones and its references to the debt collector from The Merchant of Venice likely resonate with Italian audiences. Do you think that contributed to your Golden Lion win in Venice?
Maybe. I heard the response has been quite positive in Italy since the film opened in 40 to 50 theaters last month. I personally don’t think the film has a strong religious subject other than its title. The notion of forgiveness and distrust in the film is something we all need to think about on a humanistic level.
In one sense, the film’s setting is reminiscent of Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance, although the style and the film’s ending are very different. How do you feel about the ending now?
Originally, the story had two endings. The other ending, which most people preferred, was a scene where a mother carrying a dead son gets burnt to death in front of Kang-do (the main character) like the historical pieta. That ending, for me, was too obvious and had too many religious overtones. I wanted the story to reflect on human agony. So the one you see now carries some references to crucifixion.
Have you been tempted to work within the mainstream system to attract a broader audience like Park or Bong Joon-ho?
Strictly speaking, no. I think I’m a different element than those directors. If they are more like wood or metal, I’m more like soil. They could be
transformed into something else, but I can’t. I don’t have the ability to find a middle ground with my audiences, and I know this too well. I’ve shot 18 films, and none of them had a middle ground. I think this is mainly because I didn’t study filmmaking, and I don’t know as much about the process as they do. I don’t know any way other than how I shoot. So audiences have the choice of following me or not following
me, and I don’t blame them if they choose not to watch.
Would you be open to an offer from Hollywood?
Well, before we get that far, I have to say, I’m not interested in most stories they want to tell.
You shot your first film, Crocodile, in 1996, and you’ve now spent 16 years making films. How do you feel that you’ve grown creatively?
I don’t really know how I grow. I can only see the changes when I look at the films. I think the biggest change is that my earlier films were
quite reckless and strong. I was very subjective. Many people who have watched Pieta have said my filmmaking has become more objective. I think I’m just looking in new directions now. If before I looked towards the East, now I’m looking to the West. The funny
thing is, audiences in Europe are amazed that my films are so different every time. When I come to Korea, though, people ask why my films are so similar. I can never understand this gap.
Winning a Golden Lion has undoubtedly raised your profile. Do you think South Korean audiences will approach your films differently now?
No. They’re happy that I won the award, but many still don’t see my films. On the way to this interview, strangers offered to shake hands and congratulated me; but when I asked, none of them had seen my films. Also, an artist’s creative energy is ephemeral as a flower. It blooms and soon dies. No artist is great forever. Personally, I think I reached my peak in 2004 when I shot Samaria and 3-Iron. I might havebloomed
briefly again when I shot Pieta but who knows what the next one will be like.
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