Tuesday 28 June 2011

Address Unknown (2001)


Did you know that, technically, the Korean War is still going? Begun on June 25th 1950 when the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel border and invaded South Korea, the war quickly escalated into a full-scale global conflict with the South being backed by the US and the North being backed by China. The war continued until July 27th 1953 when an armistice was finally signed by those involved. However, there was never an actual peace treaty agreed upon, so no official end to the war. This fact casts a rather unsettling shadow over Korea, which is still divided into North and South to this day. To some extent, Korea seems to be defined by war, in a near constant state of conflict or occupation by other countries, like China or Japan or the US or itself. Korea is a country with such a sad and tormented past that it must have had quite an effect on some of its citizens. To this end, infamous South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk addresses these feelings in Address Unknown.

A small Korean village serves as home to broken families, frustration and rage in the wake of conflict and colonialisation. Through the interweaving stories of three young people - Chang-guk (Yang Dong-kun), Jihum (Kim Young-min) and Eunok (Ban Min-jung) - we see how they, and the small population in general, scrape through their days in a haze of love, misery, friendship, cruelty, honour and abject hopelessness, all under the heavily felt presence of the nearby American military base.

The one thing you understand about this film right from the beginning is that it’s going to be one harsh endeavour. With a very short prologue set in 1970, we see a child saw up old US military crates, working with an old tube and scraps of metal. With these items, he builds himself a crude but very effective gun. He places a can on his sister’s head, takes aim and fires… the can doesn’t move, but then the girl clutches her right eye. As far as openers go, this is pretty tough. Fast forward some years, and these kids have grown up. The girl is Eunok, and her eye is now a cloudy white, so her hair covers the right side of her face. She’s a quiet girl, picked on by little kids for looking so strange, and pretty much ignored by everyone else. Her only friend is a puppy that she keeps chained in her home, partially so it can’t run away, mainly so no one will steal it.

That’s a pretty common practice here, dogs being stolen or bought. In a village with little industry or provisions, a supply of dog meat can make a fine meal for some. This is where Chang-guk comes in, serving as assistant to his mother’s boyfriend, the intense and sadistic Dog Eyes. Dog Eyes makes his living by buying dogs so that he can sell their meat. It’s not so much this that makes him despicable, though, rather the manner in which he dispenses with the dogs. He has Chang-guk hang them from a tree, whilst he beats them to death with a baseball bat. It’s never shown onscreen (even the camera can’t abide such sadism), but the effect is still sickening. To his credit (in as much credit can be given for it), Chang-guk hates this job. He wants to work in the local factory, as an honest labourer. However, the fact that he is of mixed race means that the workers will never accept him as one of them. His mother wants him to be free of this kind of judgement. It’s her that writes to America, trying to connect with her son’s father, a soldier long since gone home. Everyday she waits for word from her saviour, but every letter returns without finding its destination. There’s no escape from here. Salvation is an address unknown.

Jihum is the closest we have to a "normal" character, in that he has no physical peculiarities or hindrances. He even has a job that pays. His shortcomings are less obvious, because he is, at his core, a victim waiting to be victimised. He doesn’t have the imposing physicality of Chang-guk, nor the ability to simply lock himself away like Eunok. He must go out into the world, and the world doesn’t care for him much. Specifically, his suffering comes at the hands of two boys his age who mock and bully him simply because they can. Only if Chang-guk is around is he safe, but not because they’re friends. Chang-guk just wants to fight, and Jihum gives him that excuse. As it is, Jihum is also kind of in love with Eunok. It’s not a particularly healthy love, but it’s something. However, it’s this love that just leads to even more pain and suffering for both of them. No matter how it pans out, love was never the dominant emotion here.

There are numerous other aspects to Address Unknown, like the older generation’s inability to move past their old glory days of the war, when honour was key; or the American soldiers gradual mental breakdown in the miserable surroundings of this village; or that the village itself seems to have been built on the bodies of defeated enemies. War is such a part of this place that it exists everywhere, even where you can’t see it.

However, for all of the tragedy that has fallen on these characters, no one is innocent here either. Everyone abuses those beneath them, be it out of anger, frustration, cruelty or simple loneliness. As much as Chang-guk is victimised for his mixed-race status, shunned by almost everyone, he regularly and brutally takes this out on his mother. His mother’s boyfriend, Dog Eyes, hates to see this happen and so beats Chang-guk. This is turn sees him be attacked by Chang-guk’s mother, vainly trying to protect her son. The two boys bully Jihum regularly because they believe themselves to be smarter than him, since he never went to school and can’t speak English. They mock him in a language he can’t understand and take his pay-packet and push him around as they please. Jihum in turn abuses Eunok, though not directly. He spies on her every night, watching her undress through a hole in her wall. Eunok herself is abused by almost everyone. By her seemingly uncaring brother, by Jihum and the two bullies who torment him, and by the American soldier who makes promises of a better life if only she’ll sleep with him. Eunok has only one entity she can feel superior to… her puppy. It’s not even a physical pain she subjects the poor creature to, but it’s abuse nonetheless. The whole village is a vicious cycle of people tormenting others, trying to appease their tormentors, whilst taking out their own wrath on the weaker ones in their lives in a bitter attempt to find some kind of respite from their own depleted sense of self. It’s not a Nanny State… it’s a Bully State. These characters are so polarising that it’s easy to feel sorry for them, but it’s very difficult to find something in them worth liking.

Kim Ki-duk’s direction throughout is excellent. His visuals capture the unremitting empty desolation of the villager’s surroundings. With Seo Jeong-min's cinematography, the picture looks grimy and cold, like it’s been dragged across the damp, dirty ground before being processed. There’s very little in the way of the pretty or picturesque, the colour palette exuding a subdued and murky feel. Also, he maintains the heavy sense of metaphor within the piece. So often do scenes go on behind closed doors, or are obscured by plastic sheeting, branches or chain-link fences. Much of it also unfolds at a distance. These characters are trapped in this place, beyond the help of others, whether they know it or not.

There is something that rather bothers me about this film, though, beyond its crushing sense of anguish. The acting from the Korean cast is of a pretty decent standard, but the American cast are absolutely atrocious. I mean bad. I mean really, really bad. They’re like children vainly struggling to convey emotions beyond their understanding or simply just stating each line with no emotion whatsoever. What in the hell is that about? At this point, I’m going to engage in what could perhaps be a moment of over-analysis, looking to find some explanation for this other than the director simply hired piss-poor actors and failed to notice their lacklustre performances.

Within the film, the American presence is always felt, be it in the form of the soldiers, the fences, the fatigues some characters wear, a picture of an eagle and flag in Jihum’s workplace. There’s even a moment when action stops because a military plane flies overhead, and it doesn’t continue until the plane has gone. Some characters hold on to the notion that the US is their escape, their only escape. Chang-guk’s mother wants to connect with his American father, hoping to escape from her plight. She even lives in an old US bus, which we could read as her readiness to leave at a moment’s notice. The English language is also used as a kind of status symbol - if you don’t speak English, you’re to be looked down upon to some degree, as in Jihum’s treatment at the hands of the bullies. And there’s a regular mention of how easy it would be to fix Eunok’s eye with American surgery, which is regarded as the best, certainly better than what’s available in this village. There’s an association built up between America and escape, freedom, a better life. So why are the actors playing the soldiers so inherently unconvincing? Well, perhaps that’s the point. Kim Ki-duk doesn’t seem to believe that American ways are the best things for these people or this village or this country. By being so unbelievable as characters in the film, he may be trying to highlight just how unbelievable they are as a viable option of redemption and hope. Perhaps the characters should be looking to themselves for help. If this is indeed his point, and the method by which he chooses to convey it, it’s a risky one. This is just the kind of thing that could turn an audience off to a film. It asks a great deal of patience and faith on their part, and this may be a bit much for some to give.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for it, or one that at least compliments the above. Now, some of you may have seen the film’s tagline at the top there and thought, ‘that seems strangely familiar.’ It should. It’s almost exactly the same tagline as Platoon ('The first casualty of war is innocence'). There’s also a shot of a military helmet that’s vaguely reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket. Maybe Kim Ki-duk is actually taking a swing at American war films like these, set in places like Vietnam or Korea. Films like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket often follow the soldiers as they go to war in a foreign country and find moral crises, terror, Hell. That’s what Chris Taylor talks about in Platoon, saying, “Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Well, for Chris, his struggle is long and tough, but if he holds out, he can leave and go home… but what happens when you can’t leave? What happens when your home is Hell? The problems of a rookie soldier exposed to the ravages and immorality of war for 18 months are nothing compared to the lifelong desolation and depression of someone born and raised in a place without reason. Maybe the Americans in Address Unknown are so unconvincing because Kim Ki-duk remains unmoved and unconvinced by the spiritual ennui of Chris Taylor and his ilk. Compared to Chang-guk and Eunok, they know nothing of Hell.

After his 2000 film The Isle, Kim Ki-duk was heavily criticised for the cruelty to animals that goes on in the film, which were completely real by the director’s own admission, saying, “I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films. And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life.” With Address Unknown, the first thing the film shows is a disclaimer, stating that no animals were harmed in its making. Clearly, the issue hangs heavy on him still at this point. However, if the statement at the film’s opening is true, that no harm actually did befall any animals, then they walked right up to the line and kicked some dirt on it a bit. It’s the first thing that the filmmakers want said, so let’s look at it a little. Was the, frankly, obvious mistreatment of the animals in this film really necessary to convey its point? Whilst there are no onscreen instances of direct blows landing on any animals, they are still shown being dragged around and hung from a tree in preparation of their demise. I, like I think many would do, have something of a problem with this. Is it really required that an artist be cruel in order to make a statement on cruelty? Is there no other way to convey this? There’s a famous quote by a Chinese author named Han Suyin, who said, “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” Now, there are numerous thoughts and papers and treatise on this quote and the debate it identifies, so I won’t go into any great depth here, but it would seem that it does apply here somewhat. If someone is to negate their own moral sensibilities for the sake of their art, should they be condemned? Is it preferable for the viewer to ignore their own sense of outrage on the subject and choose to engage with the piece objectively? What worth is the art piece that asks someone to forgo their own morality? What worth is the person who is okay with letting their morality go for such a frivolous purpose? Certainly, the fact that Kim Ki-duk does show a degree of mistreatment to animals helps to solidify the sense of wrong within the film, but that’s hardly surprising. Trying to shock people by showing something genuinely shocking is not artistry… it is a kind of bluntness that verges on sadism. He does have a point to all this, but there are other techniques that he could have used to make his point, or a more thoughtful approach. I really can’t say I agree with the methods Kim Ki-duk uses in this film. Of course, this is all just my thoughts on the matter, and even then it’s wading pretty shallow into the debate. I’ll let you all make up your own minds.

Address Unknown is unrelentingly bleak. It’s powerful stuff, hard-hitting and filled with despair. Moments of potential levity or hope are dashed quickly and decisively… but it’s not altogether without some point to it, even if it is rather depressing. This really isn’t for everyone, and people who have a problem with cruelty to animals or unmitigated misery would be advised to avoid this, but if you can stomach it, it is a perspective that is at least worth considering.

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