The Bright Lights Film Journal have my piece on KIM Ki-duk’s Arirang, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes film festival.
Back in the late 90s and early 00s, KIM was one of Korean cinema’s golden boys. Hugely productive and critically acclaimed the world over, he was held up as an example by a generation of young Korean filmmakers busy taking their first steps on the international stage. Then, in 2008, KIM suddenly stopped working and dropped out of sight. Arirang is an autobiographical documentary made by KIM in an effort to work out why it is that he cannot make films. Now before you dismiss this as one of those self-indulgent ‘I’m writing a song about not being able to write a song!’ stunts, you should know that Arirang is not a straight film. In fact, it ends with an outright lie. This suggests that KIM knows that many of his ‘reasons’ for not working are fictitious and so Arirang can be seen as being about a man intent upon confronting the lies that plague his life:
Much like the suggestion that he might be acting, the use of a song as generically miserable as “Arirang” serves to question the authenticity of Kim’s self-diagnosis. “Arirang” can be sung at any time because while it articulates, it does not deconstruct. Its diagnosis is so general that it applies to all ills, and the same might well be said of Kim’s diagnoses of his own miseries. Is he really unable to work because two assistants failed to follow his example? Or because he cannot come to terms with the fact that death may well be the end of life? These seem less like insightful diagnoses than convenient tragedies that can be draped across Kim’s problems in order to allow him to vocalise his misery without actually analysing it — convenient fictions that smell of untruth.
Arirang is a delicate, moving and intensely personal film about grief, depression and creative block. However, while it may be breathtakingly honest, I wouldn’t believe a word of it.