Written & Directed by: Kim Ki-duk
Kim Ki-duk's latest, Time (Shi gan in Korean), earns the banality of its title, moreso, I'm sure, than any of the many other films that have simply called themselves Time, by brazenly defying any conventional understanding of the concept while making it the film's primary focus; it mockingly treats time as space, coiling its narrative into perpetual repetition. To put it bluntly, it's totally fucking nuts, and none of the reviews I read beforehand warned me—nor really could they have—of just what to expect. It sports what seems a surefire, crackerjack premise, but it adamantly refuses to conform to any denouemental expectations, setting up a simply symbolic story and then going off on a very different tangent midway. You'd think, with all the plastic surgery rampant in the film, that it'd work out, somehow, to be a simple commentary on contemporary superficiality and the international, but especially Korean, cosmetic surgery epidemic. But it doesn't.
At least not entirely, as it's after much bigger fish, such as the very nature of modern relationships. (Good luck!) Seh-hee (Je-Yeon Park), established in an early display of psychosis as rude, jealous, insecure and neurotic, is madly in love with her boyfriend of two years, Ji-Woo (Jung-woo Ha). But the thrill is gone, and one night in bed, following a fight, he can't get it up; she, pitiably and morbidly, apologizes for "always having the same boring face," adding accusatorily, "you're tired of seeing my same body everyday." As a remedy to this bout of temporary impotence, she coaxes him into fantasizing about a generously-bosomed young thing they saw earlier in a cafe, after which he's able to not only get it up but get it on. But it's not very reassuring for Seh-hee, who's offended, even though it's like asking him not to think of a pink elephant (albeit a very sexy pink elephant); the very next day, she clears out her apartment, disconnects her phone and disappears, afterwards going to a plastic surgeon to get a brand new face, thinking it'll spice up the relationship and solve all their problems! (Kim arguably missteps by opening the film with graphic surgical footage, and replaying it soon into the film, apparently unaware that 40% of theater income is from popcorn sales.) Surely facial reconstruction will rouse them from their sexual doldrums?
But maybe she should have thought to let Ji-Woo know; during her six month recovery, he's utterly miserable since the woman he loved just up and evaporated. But the show must go on, and he has a series of awkward first-dates and romantic encounters with other girls; the coitus, however, is consistently interrupted with malicious intent. Before he can undress a prostitute, a rock comes through the window, irreversibly disrupting the sexual congress; later, an old friend that's good to go returns from a mysterious encounter in the ladies room more frigid than a penguin's teat. When another girl just never calls, and another cruelly walks away without a word—in a beautiful sequence—we can only imagine, fearfully, as to why. With creepy, shaky, stalking first-person shots right out of Black Christmas, Kim looks to be setting us up for some sort of K-horror flick but, at the same time, the interspersed dramatic sequences are accompanied by a soft, treacley soundtrack and histrionic performances that cause them to reach soap-operatic heights. Is that intentional? Am I meant to be scoffing?
For a while, it's tough to tell, another arguable misstep. For much of its first half, Time is tough to get a tonal grasp on. The six months pass and Seh-hee sneaks back into Ji-Woo's life, unbeknownst to he, as the cute and strange See-hee (Hyeon-a Seong), the name difference presumably akin to something like Kristen and Kirsten. (Matt Zoller Seitz, in his bizarrely Sondheim-obsessed review in the Times, says he thinks it's like the difference between Sara and Sarah, but there's a slight difference in pronunciation implied that that doesn't capture.) She woos him, for the first time and all over again, masterfully behaving as though they've never met, but their relationship is haunted by his still lingering feelings for Seh-Hee; brilliantly, on Kim's part, she has now managed to make herself not only the object of Ji-Woo's affections, but simultaneously the object of her own jealousy.
The first half is detrimentally overlong, playful and teasing to an unsuspecting audience that craves consistency, winding up as outright laughable at times—particularly in a moment of tearful direct address—in its cornpone sentiment, with an emotional core as hollow as Seh-Hee's head. But while you're tempted to laugh at him, Kim hints that he's in on the joke, too; during an emotional encounter at a cafe, the loud and effusive Ji-Woo is berated by a neighboring patron: "you think this is a theatrical stage?"
While it's an embarrassing moment for Ji-Woo, particularly as he's severely bloodied afterwards, women, specifically Korean women, are the ones who don't come out very well throughout Time's first half; those that aren't prostitutes are either totally bonkers and/or wretchedly self-deprecating; "I'm rather worn," Ji-Woo's old friend and a potential lover says, referencing the time she spent with her ex-boyfriend, "but you can have me now," implying that it's perfectly understandable if he'd rather not. Up until the middle, Kim's point appears to be that men aren't as meatheaded as women suspect and women—remember that Seh-hee had her face changed!—are far more batshit than men could ever imagine.
The second half, however, features a surprising turn (I'll spoil it for the sake of analysis, and as it's only a mid-film twist—Ji-Woo, finding out the truth regarding what Seh-Hee has done, retributively gets a new face of his own) that devastatingly knocks the allegory off its presumed track. The sexual role reversal no longer makes any particular sex exclusively responsible for the wild turn of events; the aggressor becomes the aggrieved, the aggrieved becomes the aggressor, the "game" becomes reciprocally cruel, and each side becomes mutually culpable. Time begins to mirror itself, every scene in the second half having an indirect parallel from the first. What may have once been playful now seems vicious, as See-Hee becomes, for the first time, sympathetic and not merely frighteningly insane, until the repetition extends into eternity, like a mirror looking into a mirror, or, in the terms of the film, like the recurring image of a hand scultpure with a ladder that, thanks to an optical illusion, seems to stretch into infinity.
Kim, incidentally an apparent foot-fetishist of Tarantino proportions, packs in enough brilliant and memorable imagery, like the sculpture garden featuring the aforementioned sculpture, amongst others, or a woman wearing a photograph as a mask (terrifying!), to alone make the film a worthy contribution to the medium; but to boot he's also particularly adept at staging his scenes: a game of keep away struck up between two strangers on a ferry, or a scene at a foot pool with paper boats of variegated colors representing different call girls, are simply glorious. At first it all seems to fit together rather awkwardly, but ultimately it's brought together and Time's lasting impression is left not by its visuals alone but by its fascinating statements on love, modern romanticism and identity.
The familiarity of Seh-Hee and Ji-Woo's ordinary, static romance is expressionistically rendered in the string of successive cosmetic surgeries, calling out love's oppressiveness of routine and the impossibility of freedom from its entrapment, at least once ensnared. (And, really, who isn't?) Aside from the central theme, the futility of attempting to escape the grasp of Time—as apparently futile as attempts to avoid one's Fate (see: Oedipus)—love itself becomes a doomed ingemination of cruelty begetting cruelty, with Time both prison and warden. The search for that one true love whom we feel we already know, even though we don't know what they look like, is literally translated into an absurd quest that cannot, and will not, end happily. See-hee is left unable to recognize her love, forever condemned to wait, wonder, and measure men's hands. But then, if your true love could be anyone in the crowd, couldn't anyone in the crowd be your true love, thus negating the very concept of true love?
Such a concept seems unthinkable to our protagonists, but then what, exactly, is Time about? Is Kim saying that though time may alter our appearance, it cannot change who we are? Or is he saying that who we are is inherently connected to the way we appear? Familiarity, or at least recognizability, seems to be intertwined with love in Kim's universe; who we are is intrinsically tied to who we can be seen to be. That is, who we are and who we appear to be is a false dichotomy, as both are too interconnected to be neatly separated; we are usually told that you can't judge a book by its cover, but Kim suggests that a book's cover is as much a part of the book as the words inside. Kim underscores this point, using mirrors as a consistent leitmotif, but most memorably in the plastic surgery clinic's doors, each a different half of a face that, when closed, produce an asymmetrical visage that, despite its nonidentical parts, is still one whole face. You can push the doors open and break the image apart, but they always return again to their unified starting position.
"She must love you very much," a female cafe patron surprisingly tells Ji-Woo of Seh-Hee, after being chewed out by her in a mad display of jealousy; it's a sentiment later echoed by the dastardly plastic surgeon himself, probably the wisest character in the film but the catalyst in this most vicious of vicious cycles. "I was scared of time," See-Hee explains of her behavior, "time that makes everything change." Love comes with the best intentions and the most pernicious results. Alas, lovers change, whether superficially or psycho-emotionally, and grow apart, which Time makes harrowingly clear. In fact, all of the couples occupying the film's margins are unhappy and unsuccessful; Time is not by any stretch a romantic film, and yet it left me swooning...for its form. It may be a bit overreaching and intellectually confounding; maybe in the end it doesn't all come together, but it's a thrilling challenge to see if it might.