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In his director’s statement posted on the Venice Film Festival’s website, Kim Ki-duk briefly touched on the rationale behind his latest film’s title: his tale examines how the father, the mother and the son are “connected as one like the Moebius strip” — a description which resonates with a story involving the transference of emotions and sexual desire within members of what is, on paper, a model nuclear family, with the teenage son’s physique and psyche shaped by the misdeeds of his parents.
Devoid of dialog and drenched with unflinching depictions of sexual violence — rape, castration, sado-masochistic acts, channeled through gritty sequences filmed on handheld cameras — Moebius is, even in the context of the maverick South Korean cineaste’s oeuvre, a challenge to sit through. So it is that the Venice audience get to see an uncensored version of the film — this cut is two and a half minutes longer and contains several gory and incestuous scenes removed from the commercially-release version — and that the director received a standing ovation at one of the three screenings at the Lido, but it’s highly unlikely the filmmaker would secure the level of widespread critical acclaim similar to what was bestowed upon his Golden-Lion winning Pieta from last year.
While purporting to explore morality and mortality by tracking its (castrated) male protagonists’ pursuit of sexual gratification, Moebius offers bizarrely cartoonish characters whose erratic behavior brims on the hilarious — a character’s obsessive online surveying of completely inauthentic-looking libido-regaining inventions, for example — and worryingly misogynistic (in the ambivalent relationship between a victim of rape and her tormentor). It’s a mix which might test the patience of even the most ardent of Kim’s admirers, and Moebius will hardly be making the international festival-breakout splash that Pieta did.
What undermines Moebius is how Kim has let high concepts and philosophical subtexts run amok without anchoring them to a substantial narrative; while dressed up as a contemporary version of a Greek tragedy — complete with a cast of a modern-day Zeus, Jocasta and Oedipus — Kim has offered morals without a tale. And as if to prove the characters are merely ciphers, his film features a petit-bourgeois family comprising nameless archetypes: there’s the golf-playing, English-language-novel-reading brute of a patriarch (Cho Jae-hyun, a regular of Kim’s films); the much-ignored, angst-ridden and alcoholic of a mother (Lee Eun-woo); and, making up this nuclear (in all senses of the word) family, the meek, desensitized pubescent son (Seo Young-ju).
The film begins with the parents engaged in a violent brawl over the father’s licentious affairs away from home. Leaving their well-appointed apartment in a huff, the man meets his lover — a gaudily-dressed woman running a drab grocery shop around the corner, and also played by Lee Eun-woo — and has sex with her in his car. While his son observes the proceedings from a distance, the mother first throws a brick into her rival’s store before attempting to literally incise her husband’s wagging libido; failing to do that, transference sets in as she manages to hack off her (and his) offspring’s genitals instead.
As the mother disappears into the night, the men are left to pick up their pieces: guilty for bringing impotence (and thus infertility) to his scion, the father has his sexual organ sexually implanted on the boy and then launches a frantic search for a way to satisfy his carnal cravings; meanwhile, the son begins his troubled rite of passage towards his sexual maturity, as intimacy grows between him and his father’s lover after he takes part in gang-raping her with a group of local thugs — the leader of which eventually gets his comeuppance when she later seduces him into sex before cutting his penis off.
Having the symbols of their masculinities and the source of their joy and superiority removed, the former bullies are seen to struggle — and it’s in pain that they regain their place, with the father taking to self-maim for a high and the thug relying on his erstwhile rape victim for an orgasm by sticking a knife into his shoulder blades. Spiralling ever more towards the absurd, the vanished mother eventually returns — leading to a final, climactic explosion of all the suppressed incestuous emotions buried amidst the pursuit of auto-eroticism and surrogate phallic pleasures.
While populated by characters obsessed with sex, Moebius can be interpreted as Kim’s latest attempt in prising meaning off religious iconography. Amen builds on the story of a woman who finds herself forced to wander the land after being impregnated by a mysterious presence; Pieta revolves around the anguish of a mother whose son perished under persecution; Moebius, meanwhile, sees the breakdown of a “holy trinity” of a family.
More disturbingly than this narrative retreading, however, is how the shock-and-awe narrative devices in Moebius basically rehash many a trope from Kim’s previous films: the sexually-assaulted woman turning the tables on her tormentor was first seen in Bad Guy; the relationship between physical pain and sexual gratification was from The Isle; the transference of identity through cosmetic surgery first came to the fore in Time; 3 Iron provided the template of the wordless story about middle-class excess and the use of phallic, metallic objects; the boy’s fantastical realization of subliminal feelings is akin to the nightmares endured by the characters in Dream.
Unfortunately, Moebius never really looks like becoming a sum bigger than these parts, and Kim’s spiritual underpinnings are never really properly addressed in the way he managed to do, a decade ago, with Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, when a young character is also forced to undergo a tortuous passage to maturity and an understanding of life. Then again, Kim has a track record of producing stop-gap, half-baked offerings in between his artistic landmarks — and Moebius will rank as one of the former.
Premiered at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Opens in South Korea on Sept 5; North American premiere at Toronto Film Festival on Sept 12.
Production Company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Cast: Cho Jae-hyun, Seo Young-ju, Lee Eun-woo
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Kim Soon-mo
Executive producer: Kim Ki-duk
Screenwriter: Kim Ki-duk
Cinematographer: Kim Ki-duk
Editor: Kim Ki-duk
Music: Park In-young
No ratings, 90 minutes