Moebius finds Kim Ki-duk reaching a couple of landmarks in his career that, on reflection, were perhaps inevitable. The intensely prolific Korean auteur is no stranger to controversy, with a few of his films causing upset, and on occasion being subject to censorship in the past. His newest, however, initially failed to secure an 18+ rating in Korea, effectively resulting in an all-out ban for the film in its home country (no existing theatres would be able to show it). Following a petition and Kim editing out around three minutes of the most ‘problematic’ material, it was passed. This made me a little hesitant to see it, as no matter the reason why, I don’t ever want to see a censored version of a film if I can avoid it. However, Kim has stated that this edited version is the one that will be released in all international markets, and that the original, uncut film will only screen at the Venice Film Festival (where he won the top prize last year).
Of all the extreme material he’s featured in his output before, none has seemed overtly, excessively shocking, with The Isle’s notorious fish hooks scenes coming the closest. This is partly due to Kim’s naturalistic style of shooting, and also because these scenes all felt grounded in the story. The shock felt like a consequence of, rather than the purpose of, such scenes. Moebius though, shows no such restraint.
Are you ready? OK. The first ten or so minutes of this film introduce us to a nameless family. They live in a reasonably nice house but there is clearly something wrong. The mother (Lee Eun-woo) appears to be an alcoholic, and reacts violently as the father (Cho Jae-hyun, who worked with Kim early in his career) receives a phone call. They incompetently fight over the phone before he leaves to meet his mistress, who must be the source of the mother’s upset. All the while their teenage son (Seo Young-joo) looks on with indifference. Later, when the father has returned, the mother retrieves a knife the family keeps under a Buddha’s head in the living room and attempts to remove her husband’s offending organ as he sleeps. Unable to do so, she turns her rage onto her son, masturbating in the next room, to more success. Hearing the wails of pain, the father runs in, and as he tries to rescue the severed appendage, the mother consumes it before running away. That’s the opening scene. Still here?
This horrific act fuels the rest of the film’s events, which, even taking this starting point into account, become more disturbing, taking in masochism, mutilation, gang rape, and incest, on its way to draw out the dire consequences wreaked by the initial transgression.
Moebius touches on a few familiar themes for Kim Ki-duk, obsession, guilt, revenge etc. An unsettling mother/son relationship featured prominently in his previous film Pieta, and he’s explored the pleasure/pain dynamic before, notably in The Isle. Here an inescapable subplot involves researching seemingly ludicrous ways a genitally-challenged man might achieve gratification.
It does not feel like a re-tread for Kim Ki-duk though, and a lot of this is due to its tone. Yes, this film is actually quite…well, humorous. A lot of what transpires is played for pupil-black laughs, there are some things that happen in this film that just couldn’t be taken seriously in any director’s hands, but Kim knows what he’s doing, this isn’t unintentional. The grim insanity of most of the film does run into tonal trouble in places, the aforementioned rape scene, which is taken quite seriously, being the prime example.
The other milestone Kim reaches with this is with the dialogue, or lack thereof. He’s always been noted for the absence of talking in many films, and came close to making an entirely speech-free effort with Amen two years ago, but that only really had one character and she had a handful of lines. Here, he’s finally made a feature with no talking whatsoever, and for the most part, it entirely works. The raw, desperate extremity of the actions these characters go through seem only amplified by the vacancy of commentary. Only a couple of brief scenes involving small gangs of thugs or schoolboys seem forced in their removal of speech.
Conveying all these emotions without speech must be a challenge for any actor, and Kim’s trio here are more than up to scratch. There’s also an odd, David Lynch-esque touch, the reasons behind which I don’t fully comprehend, though the title gives a hint. Both the mother and the (younger) mistress, herself an important character, are played by Lee Eun-woo. She doesn’t use lots of prosthetics or anything, but it’s easy to differentiate her characters just on the strength of her performance. Teen actor Seo Young-joo (Juvenile Offender) also greatly impresses as the troubled youth who leads the film. There surely can’t be many young actors who can handle this type of material so well.
Of course it did leave me wondering what had been taken out from this theatrical version, and I think it’s not too hard to see. As horrid as several events of the film are, it lacks any graphic close ups, and its concluding scenes seem like they could have been cut short, but still get their point across.
Moebius is a very hard film to recommend, a grotesque yet blackly comic family tragedy that many will find completely off-putting. Kim is trying to shock to be sure, but he’s not just doing it for the sake of it, there is still thought here. Kim remains at his best when he’s more restrained (Spring, Summer…, 3-Iron, The Bow), but here at his most excessive, he still deliverers a rare film that won’t be forgotten.