'The Net' ('Geumul'): Venice Review

Geumul - Still 1- H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Kim Ki-duk changes gears in a sincere tale that politically hits the spot, but feels dramatically obvious.

A straying fishing boat sparks a reflection on the role of ideology in North and South Korea.

It comes as a surprise that iconoclastic South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk should choose to boldly confront the political hot potato of the divided Koreas in The Net (Geumul). That in itself marks a challenging change of pace for Kim and offers his audiences some respite from contemplating chopped-off body parts. What is a little disappointing is the earnest, no-surprises screenplay about a hapless North Korean fisherman who strays into Southern waters. Coming from a director known for his modernism and visual extremism in festival favorites like the cruel mom-son fable Pieta or the family sex tragedy Moebius, it’s all a little underwhelming in a film that has some gripping moments, but not enough of them. Ultimately it seems like the kind of story that will resonate more with local audiences than festival sophisticates, though it could earn polite admiration from the politically correct in limited art house release.

The film makes a very good point about how citizens of both countries, in fact of all countries, unconsciously view the world through the blinders of their native political ideology. While for the South Korean anti-espionage agents communism, dictatorship and brainwashing are synonymous, through the eyes of a poor North Korean it is inexplicable how, in a land of democracy, freedom and abundance, people are so unhappy. Kim’s balancing of values and viewpoints is startlingly bold, though the film isn't about taking sides.

The story opens with the shaggy Chul-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum) leaving the chilly happiness of his wife, little girl and threadbare household for a day’s fishing right smack on the border of the two Koreas. When his net gets wrapped around the propeller, he helplessly drifts into South Korean waters and is promptly arrested as a spy.

The nightmare begins here. Ignoring his heartfelt pleas to be taken back North, his captors interrogate him mercilessly, even though it's obvious from the outset he isn’t a spy. A sadistic young spy-catcher baits him, beats him and weaves a trap around him, while the young, clean-faced Oh Jin-woo (Lee Won-geun), assigned to guard him around the clock, bonds with the poor fellow. Chul-woo, who was nicknamed Stonefist in his army days, fights back manfully against all odds.

He is mainly concerned about what is happening to his family back North, now at the mercy of State Security. For the sake of a media and propaganda coup, the old South K spymaster decides to convert him to democracy, but Chul-woo stubbornly refuses to defect. He’s horrified at the idea of catching a glimpse of Seoul's bright lights and come-hither storefronts, because he knows he’ll be mercilessly interrogated about everything when he gets back. So he ingenuously shuts his eyes tight, refusing to look at anything, until he is dumped on the street and left to fend for himself.

It’s a situation that could easily have been the jumping-off place for a sardonic, Ninotchka-style tale about his seduction to capitalist hedonism, but Kim chooses to play it as straight drama. The fisherman’s first encounter is with a half-naked young hooker who is being beaten up by her handlers. Stonefist has no trouble routing them. In many of Kim’s other films, the scene would be tame, but in this realistic context it just seems surreal. All too obviously, it illustrates the unhappy exploitation of women in the West and the sad fact that no one can live without an income.

Given that Ryoo gives his character a great deal of raw intensity and instinctive intelligence, it’s dismaying to find Chul-woo naively running a fool’s errand for a real spy, one who meets a grisly end that harks back to Kim’s obsession with amputated appendages. This level of credulity really makes no sense in the context and doesn’t even have a big payoff. The story gets back on track in the final reels, when Kim takes a disenchanted look at North Korea. Much less grotesque and far more down-to-earth than a satire like The Interview, these scenes convey the chilling inhumanity and injustice of an authoritarian society, yet after the sadism seen in Seoul, one can’t help but find some similarities. In both cases, it’s a question of ideology destroying human beings.


Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film

Cast: Ryoo Seung-bum, Lee Won-gun, Kim Young-min, Choi Guy-hwa

Director, screenwriter: Kim Ki-duk

Producer: Kim Soon-mo 

Director of photography: Kim Ki-duk

Production designer: An Ji-hye

Costume designer: Lee Jin-sook

Editor: Park Min-sun

Music: Park Young-min

World sales: Fine Cut  

114 minutes