Kim Ki-duk returns with another challenging and confrontational piece of hard-edged and politically charged cinema…
Following up on his superbly unhinged castration comedy drama Moebius, Korean director Kim Ki-duk caused a stir by announcing that with his next outing One on One he’d be venturing into torture territory. Despite its potentially exploitative subject matter and having been shot in just two weeks, the film, Kim’s 20th, was like most of his works popular on the international festival scene, winning the Venice Days Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival – though as usual was largely ignored at the domestic box office back home.
On the surface at least, the film has a ruthlessly simple structure, opening with the murder of an unfortunate schoolgirl for unexplained reasons, following which the apparent perpetrators of the crime are hunted down, kidnapped and tortured into confessing by a vigilante group calling themselves Shadow. Let by Ma Dong-seok (The Unjust), the group work their way up the chain towards the man who gave the order for the killing, while experiencing a variety of different reactions to their increasingly violent acts.
Interestingly, One on One was apparently based upon an actual event, which Kim Ki-duk claimed in an interview at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival that no critic or journalist had yet managed to identify, offering a ₩10 million reward to anyone he could. Whether its real life origins are true or not, the film is very much in Kim’s usual style, being an angry, nihilistic piece that attacks and accuses both Korean society and the viewer. While its social concerns are nothing new, dealing with corruption, greed and the human propensity for animalistic brutality, the film does have more of a political and explicitly anti-authoritarian dimension than most of Kim’s previous works. The question of identity, and through this, culpability, also comes through strongly, the film deliberately making its characters hard to tell apart at times, and focusing on the abstractly posed question, ‘Who am I?’. This loss of self also leads Kim to criticise the Shadow torturers and the various petty weaknesses and sins which define them, and though the film does primarily jab its blade at the rich and the obsessively socially mobile, its overall aim seems to be to depict a world filled with random violence and cruelty, driven by self-interest and avarice.
Of course, all of this is very much par for the course when it comes to Kim Ki-duk, though where the film perhaps surprises is through the torture scenes. With Kim being known for rough violence and sadism, as seen in The Isle, Pieta, Moebius and other films, the premise of One on One certainly suggests more of the same – and indeed it does serve up some ferocious beatings and painful set pieces. However, there’s a theatrical, distinctly arthouse feel to the film in this respect, in part due to the Shadows dressing up in costumes before dealing with their victims, often in a role-play context. Coupled with scenes of them before and after having discussions in their locker room about their plans, this effectively removes the usual shock value associated with torture porn cinema as well as any kind of vengeance-genre catharsis, Kim taking an approach somewhat reminiscent of Michael Haneke with Funny Games. Certainly, One on One is neither a horror nor a revenge film, the victims and the torturers all reacting differently, the set pieces often coming to unexpected conclusions, and the abstract plot building to a downbeat and wilfully unsatisfying conclusion.
The film does have its flaws, and likely due to its two week shooting schedule feels rushed and underdeveloped in places, some of the subtleties getting lost in the mix – at just over two hours in length, it’s undeniably on the long side, and whether on purpose or not, the confusion over some of the characters and their identities often leaves the viewer rather lost. Similarly, the low budget does show and the film feels at times flat, and lacking in the visual creativity Kim has shown in the past or any of his usual flair for finding odd moments of beautiful grotesquery. Again, given the subject and the film’s ambitions this is possibly deliberate, though it does mean that it makes for murky viewing during several stretches.
Still, even when not firing on all cylinders Kim Ki-duk is easily one of Korea’s most unique and vital filmmakers, and One on One only really suffers in comparison to the also recently released Moebius, one of his best films to date. Though not exactly fun viewing, it’s a fascinating and provocative film which sees Kim sticking to his guns, continuing to blaze his own bitter trail irrespective of commercial or indeed critical approval.