On Friday, several cinema fans in Kerala mourned the death of South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk who passed away from COVID-19. Called 'Kimki' by Malayalis, the 59-year-old filmmaker was a superstar in the state amid a section of fans who followed international cinema. However, Kim Ki-duk's career was also tarnished by allegations of sexual assault and harassment during the #MeToo movement in South Korea. In fact, from 2017 to 2018, multiple women actors came forward to accuse the filmmaker and he was eventually fined for physical assault.
However, years before these accounts were made public, 'Kimki' visited Kerala in 2013. He attracted such a big crowd that it could have led to a stampede. Critics of the #MeToo movement have often claimed that allegations of sexual harassment can unfairly dent the popularity of talented men. But, seven years after his visit and the cases that came up against him in South Korea, the news of Kim Ki-duk's death was received by fans in Kerala with acute grief.
Kim Ki-duk himself was surprised by the reception he received back in 2013, when he was the Guest of Honour at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). So popular were the filmmaker's movies that screenings at the IFFK would run to packed houses, with fans waiting for hours in queues at the venue in Thiruvananthapuram.
“I feel even superstars would not get that kind of reception consistently for six days. There were crowds waiting at the airport to greet Kim Ki-duk when he landed. He had special security arranged by the government of India. In the 5-6 days that he stayed in the state, there were fans continuously gathered around him,” recalls Dr Bijukumar Damodaran, an acclaimed filmmaker who has served as an IFFK jury member since 2011.
It all began when the Kim Ki-duk wave hit the IFFK in 2005, with five of the director's films being screened at the festival. These were Spring, Summer, Fall… Winter and Spring, Samaritan Girl, Three Iron, Bad Guy and The Boy. The films were a unique experience for the IFFK audience who began lapping up Kim Ki-duk's works ever since. Over time, the Korean director's films went on to become a crucial part of IFFK and were played multiple times following audience requests. “We have even had an instance in Kerala when a crowd broke into the movie hall and vandalised the building in order to catch seats for a Kimki film,” Dr Biju recalls.
Speaking of his art, actor-director Madhupal says that the filmmaker’s works were ‘at an unnatural level’. According to him, the violence in Kim Ki-duk's movies carry a sense of calmness over chaos, and the narration also goes beyond the layer of violence. He also describes the love scenes in his films to be more 'spirtitual than physical'. Kim Ki-duk inspired several new age Korean directors, including Academy Award winning filmmaker Bong Joon-ho whose film Parasite offers traces of the former's style.
KB Venu, a film critic, says that Kim Ki-duk's films catered to the sensibilities of Malayalis, just like Marquez's writing.
“We love Marquez and Maradona for their unparalleled talent. W have immense love for artists who let their imaginations defeat the normal, set standards. Malayalis would let their imaginations wander with the intricacies of the characters of Marquez and Kim Ki-duk,” Venu tells TNM.
Venu is the author of a book on Kim Ki-duk titled Silence and Violence, which focuses on how the director embellished silence in his movies and how often that silence broke out into violence. The book is published by the State Chalachitra Academy. Venu believes that the transformation in Kim Ki-duk’s career began with three of his movies — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Three Iron and Samaritan Girl.
“He was an independent filmmaker who spoke through the language of cinema only. His frame composition was so unbelievable. He was probably not as celebrated in South Korea as he was in Kerala. I once asked a Korean film student whom I met at the International Film Festival of Goa about the director and he told me that he was the most notorious filmmaker in South Korea,” Venu says.
Perhaps in his homeland, people were more aware about Kim Ki-duk the person as they were about his art. In 2017, an anonymous actor came forward and accused Kim Ki-duk of assaulting her on the set of his film Moebius. She said that the director had hit her several times before pressuring her to participate in a sex scene that she had previously not agreed to do. In 2018, at least three women came forward and accused the director of sexual assault. Kim Ki-duk reacted by filing defamation suits against the complainants which he later lost.
The controversial filmmaker was once a factory worker who entered the world of cinema due to his love for fine arts. He moved to Paris where he shot his first film, Crocodile, in 1996. Since then, he made over 20 films. His documentary Arirang was chosen as the best documentary film at the Cannes film festival once. Arirang was his second entry into the world of cinema after escaping public life for a brief period. It was during this time that he shot the documentary.
However, the latter half of his filmography was believed to be less peaceful and more violent. The raw violence in his films even attracted criticism. But his fans at the IFFK continued to watch the films. There were even incidents reported at the IFFK where viewers fainted after seeing the graphic visuals from his films and cried out loud.
Though some of his movies were not accepted well in his homeland, they were often smash hits at international festivals. His films collected awards at festivals in Berlin, Venice, Cannes and other prestigious venues. His last film Dissolve was released in 2019.
While several Kim Ki-duk fans in Kerala shared their grief at the fillmmaker's passing on social media and elsewhere, others who were followers of his work distanced themselves from mourning due to the serious allegations made against him during #MeToo.