Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong)

Korea (2001) Dir. Kim Ki-Duk

If you were to think about the scariest places in the world, ranking high among them must be inside the mind of Korean provocateur Kim Ki-Duk – one of the very few filmmakers to commit such bleak, hopeless and unconscionably upsetting images to film as he has over the past twenty years.

Among this catalogue of relentlessly grim and askew outings is this post Korean War tale set in a small impoverished rural village 1970, near which a US military base has been built, directly or indirectly affecting the lives of the locals.

Chang-guk (Yang Dong-kun) is a half-breed son of a Korean barmaid (Bang Eun-jin) and a black US soldier now back in America. His mother promises that they will visit the US to see Chang-guk’s father but the letters she sends always return labelled “Address Unknown”. Chang-guk works for his mother’s boyfriend Dog-Eyes (Jo Jae-hyeon) who slaughters dogs and sells them for meat.

Elsewhere the quiet Ji-heum (Kim Young-min) is in love with Eun-ok (Park Min-jung), a girl with a disfigured right eye from a childhood accident. Eun-ok is also pursued by an American soldier (Mitch Malem), who offers to pay for eye surgery if she’ll be his girlfriend. Meanwhile Ji-heum is being bullied by two thugs learning English so they can make their way in the US.

According to an interview on this DVD Kim Ki-Duk says this film was intended to give American audiences an insight into life in post war Korea as well as the hardships their fellow compatriots endure being stationed away from home. Not that I wish to discredit Kim in any way but this doesn’t come across as clearly as he hopes it does, at least not the sympathy for the US soldiers.

While the Americans are not portrayed as evil interlopers or necessarily as disruptive force, they aren’t covered in glory either. Their main role appears more to be a catalyst for the misery heaped upon the Korean natives in their radius, their presence hovering like an ominous dark cloud.

Bearing the brunt of this is Chang-guk whose darkened skin and short afro hair makes him an easy target for discrimination from others round him, which he then takes out on his own mother. Dog-Eyes then attacks Chang-guk for this, only to be slapped by the mother for hitting her son! If this sounds like the making of a black comedy, trust me it isn’t – it’s an endless cycle of violence that can only lead to a tragic ending.

True to form, Kim Ki-Duk bludgeons us with more depictions of gritty and gnarly violence, apparently the default answer to everyone’s problems. Sometimes it is deserved – Eun-ok discovers she is being spied on so she pokes the culprit in the eye with a sharp pencil – but mostly, it is people lashing out others because they’ve been hit by someone stronger, a sort of slapping hierarchy if you will.

Everyone in the film is emotionally or psychologically damaged in one way or another, reflected quite often in their odd reactions to a situation. Ji-heum seems the most level headed at first but he shuns Eun-ok once she has her eye fixed, claiming he didn’t mind her disfigurement. Seeing as much of this film is metaphorical this may have been a dig at US consumerism or the ideal of throwing money at a problem to solve it.

The supporting cast fare little better, with Ji-heum’s father boasting of his war efforts for shooting three North Korean soldiers in the war or Eun-ok’s older brother constantly sponging money off his mother, their absent war hero father later revealed to be a defector to the North! The US soldier smitten with Eun-ok is another powder keg of rage, fuelled by his diet of booze and LSD to get him through the day.

With such endless misery on display, which includes animal abuse (thankfully kept off screen unlike other Kim films ), there doesn’t seem like room for any levity but even Kim is able to slip a few very black and very droll sniggers into the proceedings. If it isn’t a visual gag involving three sight impaired people then it is the two idiot bullies trying to learn English by badly translating an American porn mag.

But, despite this barrage of bleakness this is an easy film to follow and once the quirky cast and unconventional setting gets its hook into you, staying the distance for the full two hours isn’t that much of a problem. Even when things become almost unbearable to watch there is still a flicker of curiosity as to what the resolve will be that keeps the viewer from walking away. You may not like what you see but like the characters you will only escape this hell when it is time to go and not before.

Whatever trust and loyalty Kim is able to prompt from his actors he really needs to bottle it as I can’t imagine anyone reading this script and willingly agree to half the things their characters do or endure. But they do and the typically dedicated cast imbue their oddball screen incarnations with the requisite humanity and pathos, even if they aren’t sympathetic in any way.

The only real let down are the American actors who are uniformly awful, hopelessly spewing clunky f-word laden dialogue and emoting like stone statues. Mitch Malem is the least convincing nut job soldier in history, bordering on the comical with every passing scene.

Kim Ki-Duk is a unique voice in cinema and it is clear that he views the world through a totally different lens than the rest of us. This is what makes him great to some or repellent to others. Address Unknown might be too subtle for its own good in conveying some of the messages Kim intended but as a piece of provocative and blunt filmmaking, this hits hard, leaving quite the bruise.