The International Writers Magazine
DVD Review

Address Unknown
Directed by Kim Ki Duk
A Robert Cottingham Review

Kim Ki Duk makes films like no other filmmaker living or dead. But, like all the best directors, his films divide opinions. Address Unknown was filmed in 2001, but it’s taken almost this long for it to have a DVD release.

After five years of deliberation, the powers that be have decided to let people make up their own minds.

It is tempting to place Kim’s work within the burgeoning South Korean New Wave, alongside feted directors Chan Wook Park (Oldboy) and Kim Joon Won (Tale Of Two Sisters). But something about Kim’s work makes such comparisons hard to justify. It’s hard to imagine his films being nominated at the Cannes film festival. Or optioned for flashy Hollywood remakes, as has happened with so many young Turks from South East Asia.

Address Unknown is one of the most shocking films to be made on the horrors of war, yet it contains no combat. All its conflicts are psychological. It looks at a community somewhere on the Korean peninsula. The year is 1970, 17 years after the war between South and North Korea. Although fighting has long since ended, American soldiers remain a visible presence in the town, signified by the constant whir of helicopters overhead.

A lonely woman ekes out her existence in an army bus, where she is visited by her boyfriend, a violent ex-soldier who fought for the communists and now makes a living killing dogs for their meat. His assumed fecklessness in supporting the wrong side, and the lowliness of his work, make him an ostracized presence in the town. The woman’s son, bitterly opposed to his mother’s lover, was the consequence of a love affair between the woman and an American soldier some years previous. The letters she sends to him, which are subsequently returned with the stamp “Address Unknown” give the film its title, but this is just one strand of the film’s narrative.

An introverted and highly troubled young man spies on a girl in the room opposite his, watching her engage in sex play with a collie dog, to whom she is devoted. When her dog is kidnapped and it looks as though it will become dog meat, he risks his life in order to save it. Furthermore, a group of Korean veterans spend their days playing target practice and argue over their unawarded medals to which they feel to be their right. And finally there are the American soldiers. Little is known about their presence in the west, yet there are some 20.000 soldiers still in residence even today.

In Address Unknown, one of the soldiers enters into a pact with the dog loving girl who, since a childhood accident, can only see out of one eye. He offers to pay her the money needed for an operation to restore her sight if she becomes his girlfriend, which she does, although her lack of English and his limited Korean means that conversation is limited, and his love turns to hostility and possessiveness. Soon the other townspeople come to resent their relationship, not least the troubled young man who thought the girl loved him.

That’s about the extent of the film’s story, but it’s much, much more than the sum of its parts. The acting, as in so many of Kim’s films, is excellent. Each character finds a way to express his own personal tragedy and the dehumanising effects of war and occupation.

Kim began his career as an artist and didn’t make his first film till the ripe old age of 33. Only a painter, I’m sure, could have composed a film as starkly beautiful as Address Unknown, where every frame unfolds like a series of still lives. It’s a cold, bleak and unsettling film. But though it contains images of shocking violence, it’s never glamorised or lingered over, the way it is in most Asian films of this nature. In the most brutal scenes, the camera pulls away from the horror. Like a mother offering her breast to her crying baby, Kim assuages the enormity of the terror and allows us to continue watching from a safe distance.

At the movie’s centre is a haunting love story, whose protagonists are never brought together. Love can bring people together, sure, but it can also pull them apart and leave them bloodied and bruised, literally in some cases. The half American/ Korean is unable to accept his father’s usurper, and can no longer love his mother either.

In the DVD’s brief interview with the director, Kim said he made the film to bring a greater understanding between Americans and Koreans, as though he were acting as a mediator between the two sides. The film shows how a Korean life is valued less than the life of an American, even in self defence, violence against an American will result in severe punishment. Its still impossible for an American to be convicted of an assault against a Korean.

I wish that there were more filmmakers as talented, committed and soulful as Kim, but right now, he’s pretty much all we have.

5x2 by Francois Ozon
A Robert Cottingham Review

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