'Human, Space, Time and Human' ('Inkan, gongkan, sikan grigo inkan'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

The horror, the horror.

Kim Ki-duk's 23rd feature portrays the violence on board a ship stranded in mid-air.

As a metaphorical tale about contemporary politics and a biblical allegory about the history of humankind, Kim Ki-duk's latest feature is sensationalistic, simplistic and sadistic. Revolving around the corruption and chaos aboard a battleship turned pleasure boat which somehow becomes stranded in mid-air, Human, Space, Time and Human ('Inkan, gongkan, sikan grigo inkan') represents the latest low point for the South Korean helmer, who was recently accused of assaulting and abusing an actress on the set of an earlier film.

In the press kit, Kim says he "made this film in order to stop hating humans," while his longtime sales rep Finecut describes it as "a meditation on the human condition." Unfortunately, it fails on both accounts. With its ham-fisted analogies, clichéd characters and gratuitous violence, the film is simply one whopping, misanthropic mistake.

And don’t even start on the misogyny. The female protagonist is raped by nearly every significant male character during the film's sex-crazed first half-hour — which packs in two orgies and a gang rape involving another woman — but she is then “enlightened” by a mysterious, all-seeing old man to come out and defend her resultant pregnancy as an act of divine intervention. 

That nameless mystic, a prophetic figure who seems to have known all along how the murderous mayhem would unfold, is perhaps Kim’s onscreen proxy and a symbol of his Hitchcockian penchant for playing God. Not in a good way, though. Perverse at nearly every turn — not just in terms of its worldview, but also in disposing of the best-known castmember, Joe Odagiri, 20 minutes into the film — Human, Space, Time and Human is either the work of an artist who has really lost touch with humanity or a provocateur playing tricks on the audience. 

Still, Kim remains one of South Korea's most established brands in the international art house arena, which probably explains why, in spite of the scandal whirling around him, the film bowed as a Special Presentation in the Berlin Panorama. Even before its premiere, screening rights were snapped up. 

After some aerial shots of a vast sea accompanied by pompous orchestral music, the camera zeroes in on a speck in the water. It's a decommissioned warship now used as a cruise ship, and it’s about to set sail with its holiday-makers on an "adventure" lasting seven days. (Kim isn't bashful about making explicit references to religious concepts and iconography throughout.)

Among the passengers are a high-flying senator (Lee Sung-jae) and his seemingly righteous son (Jang Keun-suk); a gang of unruly thugs led by a blood-thirsty brute (Ryoo Seung-bum) who instantly offers his services to the politician; a Japanese woman (unnamed in the film but mentioned as "Eve" in the credits, played by Mina Fujii) and her boyfriend (Odagiri); and a select few sleazy youths and con-men. On the sidelines is the enigmatic old man (Ahn Sung-ki), who collects dirt and food scraps to build a miniscule farm in his bunker below deck.

With unrest seething because of the unequal treatment being given to the politician and his henchmen, the first day ends carnally enough, with three prostitutes offering their services to the thugs and then the seamen. The sex scenes featuring these naked "whores" are exploitative enough, before Kim adds the violation of the pure "madonna" — in the form of the Japanese woman in a short white dress — to the general obnoxiousness.

Beyond all this contemplation of base desire, the film unfolds like a wannabe Snowpiercer-on-the-sea. Class differences soon emerge, and the politician becomes a supreme leader surrounded by ruffians who have assumed authority by donning military uniforms they found in a storage space. Their leader announces the ship is under martial law and proclaims them the guardians of goodness and order. While they stuff their faces and live the high life, the rest are made to survive on increasingly smaller rations. 

While known for shining a light on the extremes of human cruelty, Kim has never been strong in tackling real-life social problems or politics, as is evident in his recent politically charged titles like One on One or The Net. Here, his social critique is shallow and bereft of the symbolism his work is known for.

Needless to say, cruelty is not absent from the screenplay, which portrays humanity's disintegration through murder, cannibalism and more. Even the scenes suggesting redemption and renewal look disturbing: The old man plants seeds into bleeding orifices, while the final scene implies impending incest in an anti-Eden.

But by then, all is probably lost, and Human, Space, Time and Human offers little solace in terms of its narrative, its technical competence or logic (the one glaring glitch is how the Korean and Japanese characters speak in their own tongues, as somehow manage to understand each other). Kim has reportedly talked about how he had to cut back on his initial plan to have lions on the ship because of difficulty in securing funding. It’s not hard to see why.

Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Cast: Mina Fujii, Jang Keun-suk, Ahn Sung-ki, Joe Odagiri
Director-screenwriter-executive producer-editor: Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Kim Dong-hoo
Director of photography: Lee Jeong-in
Production designer: Kim Young-tak
Music: Park In-young
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Sales: Finecut

In Korean and Japanese
122 minutes