'One on One': Venice Review

One on One Group - H 2014

One on One Group - H 2014

Sometimes screen violence is more of a dud than a firecracker

Kim Ki-duk disappoints with a surprisingly lackluster revenge tale full of angry social undertones

Whether it's the heart-stopping poetry in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall … and Spring, the dark, aching violence of Venice Golden Lion winner Pieta or the outrageous black comedy of the uncensored Moebius, South Korean director Kim Ki-duk has built up an international fan base crafting exciting works of the imagination. Alas, the same cannot be said of One on One, a repetitive fable that waxes from the social to the philosophical, notable for a surprising lack of oomph. Even Kim's trademark violence seems halfhearted here. Opening the Venice Days sidebar, it seems unlikely to make much of a dent at the box office after its disappointing May release in South Korea.  

The story opens on a group of youths who brutally assault a schoolgirl one night, leaving her dead. They then call their boss, who calls his boss, who calls his: Everyone is satisfied with this vicious contract killing. The why of the murder is never given — in fact, it seems not to exist. 

What happens next plants some doubt that the tale is to be taken seriously.  One of the boys from the gang is pulled out of his car by two black-faced men in Army fatigues and dragged to a secret cellar full of torture instruments, where more military types appear with black paint partially hiding their features. There is even a shapely, stiff-lipped girl in similar gear. Their watchword, repeated to comic effect, is "Defeat communism!"  Interrogating the boy, the Chief, played by Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok), shows him a police picture of the dead schoolgirl and demands he write a confession. He orders him tortured until he complies, then has the trembling mangled youth left on the roadside.

This pattern is repeated over and over with increasing violence, as the vigilantes, assuming the guise of gangsters, National Security personnel, and most ludicrously, garbage collectors, track down the real gang members and their bosses.  But unlike the unrelenting cruelty in Pieta, their revenge has its limits. Though the Chief is the most cold-blooded and sometimes has to be restrained, overall they prove to be reluctant and unimaginative torturers.

Though nodding at the long tradition of vigilante movies from Death Wish on, Kim is more interested in confronting the viewer with agonizing moral quandaries. Is violence ever justified? How much should be wreaked on savage criminals? Even the baddies have their own set of "values."  The woman is the first to be sickened by revenge after she's ordered to beat the penis of one of the boys with a club. But other members turn tail too. The ending of the film slips into obscure philosophizing that deliberately reaches no conclusion, leaving a feeling of frustration post surreal finale.

Naturally there are some nice touches, like the gradual revelation of the avengers' impoverished backgrounds and the social injustice they are forced to live with.  A vivid cast, particularly Don Lee's bellowing Chief, nicely individualize the characters, which helps a storyline that is often extremely hard to follow.

As usual Kim Ki-duk takes practically every technical credit on the film, with the exception of production design (hard to see in the dark nighttime images) and Park Young-min's violin and cello score, which plays dangerously close to the sentimental.

It is far from the writer-director's best screenplay, but one scene is hard to erase from memory. The handheld camera follows the young woman avenger home to her miniscule apartment, where her arrogant, slaphappy young lover bullies and humiliates her, even threatening to kill her with a knife. Remarkably, the scene ends in graphic sex and the girl's evident pleasure. The couple seems content with a repellent, low-level S&M relationship, however uneasy it makes the audience. Quietly dramatizing the ambiguity of human relations, it strikes a chord that much of the rest only aspires to.

Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Cast: Don Lee, Kim Young-min, Lee Yi-kyung, Cho Dong-in, Yoo Teo, Ahn Ji-hye, Jo Jae-ryong, Kim Joong-ki
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Screenwriter: Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Kim Soon-mo
Executive producer: Kim Ki-duk
Director of photography: Kim Ki-duk
Production designer:Hon Zi

Editor: Kim Ki-duk
Music:Park Young-min
Sales Agent: Fine Cut

No rating, 122 minutes.