‘Bad Guy’ Review

2002. Bad Guy - Image courtesy of Lifesize EntertainmentSouth Korea. 100 minutes
Directed by Kim Ki-duk
With Jo Jae-hyeon, Seo Won, Kim Yun-tae, Choi Duek-mun, Kim Jung-young

It’s an incredibly alluring poster. Beware – it may draw you into its web and kill you.

Korean director Kim Ki-duk is like that. He’s capable of composing beautiful landscapes: a floating fishing village lit from within at night (THE ISLE), gently waving tall grass beside a seaside military training camp (COAST GUARD), a Buddhist temple that floats across a lake throughout the extremes of the seasons (SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER, AND SPRING AGAIN); against those initially idyllic backgrounds he sets characters whose emotions roil their interior lives until they burst out and damage all within striking distance.

BAD GUY begins at a bucolic setting: a city park. A lovely, prim and proper young lady sits on a bench until she is joined by an unwelcome, unruly-looking stranger. He wants nothing more than a kiss — as if she would grant such a thug access to those innocent lips. He tries to take what he wants by ugly brute force. He ends up soundly thrashed by a passing group of soldiers and spat upon by the young lady.

Shortly thereafter, the young lady succumbs to temptation and commits an apparently victimless crime. It may have been the first illegal act of her life, but she will pay dearly. With stomach-turning, head-spinning speed, she finds herself sold into prostitution. Her virginity is wasted. Her body is no longer her own. And the man responsible is the very one she spurned on the park bench.

Kim Ki-duk is a highly talented director. The film is powerful and accomplished, and the performances are excellent. Yet BAD GUY is, in my view, morally reprehensible and distasteful. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers for the films I’ve written about, but I’ll make an exception here and explain that BAD GUY makes the case that a woman who has been raped and forced into prostitution can still fall in love with the man responsible. Worse, it works hard to make you feel sorry for this poor “bad guy” who really isn’t so “bad” after all, because all he wants is to be loved.

The program notes for the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival (where I first saw the film) made the claim that it’s “an attempt to understand the violence and lack of humanity that arises in a social class refused its most basic needs.” I don’t agree. I feel it promotes the idea that society is entirely to blame for individual problems and that no personal responsibility need be taken. BAD GUY is so slimy and sneaky that it leaves a very sour taste for having invested the time to watch it.

With all the recent attention focused on OLDBOY and director Park Chan-wook, it’s good to remember that Kim Ki-duk has been fending off criticism regarding his extreme, violent imagery for years. Yet he continues to plow ahead prolifically. In addition to the belated Los Angeles theatrical run by Lifesize Entertainment of this 2002 Korean release, Kim’s late 2004 film 3-IRON will get a stateside release from Sony Pictures Classics beginning April 29, and his early 2004 film SAMARITAN GIRL will be available on Region 1 DVD from Tartan Video USA on May 10.

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