Ki-duk Kim is seen as an outsider even amongst South Korean film-makers, whose number includes Park Chan-wook (Vengeance trilogy) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) and reputation precedes them in terms of balls to the wall madness, second only to Japan in that respect. Ki-duk Kim is much more uncompromising and willing to explore the disgusting underbelly of South Korean society, turning up as he does various unseemly and violence-prone characters and themes he can twist and mould to his own devices.
Crocodile, his directorial debut, sees him begin his career with an extremely strange film about a small twisted family unit who gradually chip away at life, under the dictatorial control of an explosively violent man named Crocodile. Kim was trained as a painter in Paris before returning to South Korea and from watching this film, it is obviously made by someone with an expert eye for detail and beauty in strange places, rather than someone with a real interest of narrative structure.
This isn’t meant as damning someone with faint praise; it’s just clear that the focus in this piece is the visual quirks and the interesting depictions of brutality that Kim weaves into the film. There is a story, of course, but it’s driven more by character than by narrative – there’s onward motion in the sense that Crocodile spends much of the film being chased by gangsters, but this is treated more as background detail. The real story is in the interactions between Crocodile, the kid, and the homeless old man, and how those relationships change and evolve when Crocodile saves a woman, Hyun-Jong, from trying to commit suicide.
To say that he “saves” her is an overstatement – while he does prevent her death, Crocodile proceeds to use her as a sex toy, taking advantage of her whenever he feels like it. He does get repeated comeuppance later on in the film, at the hands of multiple people, but it never really affects him.
Crocodile‘s strength is in the way that it forces the audience to sympathise with its central character. Even though he is a completely repulsive human being, prone to bouts of sexual anger and explosive rage, we’re forced to consider why this might be, and how he came to be living in a tent by the side of a river. His character becomes less two-dimensional as the story progresses, to the film’s benefit. To the film’s credit, the slight mellowing of Crocodile does not affect the content of the film, and violent scenes remain throughout involving urination, child violence, multiple rape – a veritable buffet of transgression.
It might not be the easiest watch, but it’s certainly incredibly stylish and looks beautiful, in a dingy and unorthodox way – the underwater scenes are especially beautiful, understated and sparsely deployed but devastatingly effective. It’s a fantastic first film but a director who would go, and has gone, on to great things, but just a little less mindless and clichéd gangster violence would have made for a much better film.
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