What can a director do when he’s unable to find the crew and backers to make movies? South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk knows: he made a film about himself. What can a director do when journalists don’t ask him the right questions? Kim Ki-duk asks and answers his own questions. In Arirang, easily the most eccentric selection at Cannes this year, he serves as cinematographer, editor, and director, and also plays three roles: himself, his alter ego, and his own shadow.
The audacity and charm of this exercise only become apparent a few hours after seeing it. Watching the film, it only seems like Too Much Information. Holed up in a remote shack since 2008, when he finished his last film, Bi-mong (Dream), the director films himself melting snow, cooking, eating, drinking soju, making an espresso machine, collecting wood, and even defecating. He documents his dirty hair, his crusted feet, and his chewing habits. His shack is so cold that he sleeps in a tent inside it, where his new Mac with giant screen sits next to his mattress. He confesses his sins and resentments. When an actress almost died while shooting a hanging scene for Bi-mong, he felt incapable of starting another project. When he gave two assistant directors the chance to make films from his scripts, they abandoned him for Hollywood. And when his government gave him a medal (“I’m surprised, they probably wouldn’t if they actually saw my films”), it refused to fund his next project.
Luckily, Arirang offers an imaginative revenge fantasy alongside its nearly unbearable naturalism. From time to time, Kim Ki-duk’s alter ego and shadow appear to probe him about his life and career. “I’m so glad you’re here to ask these questions,” his “real” self responds. When he’s not feeling self-reflective, he makes a gun, then drives here and there shooting his “enemies,” though we can only guess that that’s what they are, because the camera stays in the car as he exits, and we can only hear the shots. Then he comes home and atones: shoots himself. This leads to a funerary slide show of his film posters and publicity shots, but then… at the end of the film, he is still alive, singing “Arirang,” a traditional Korean song, at the top of his lungs. “I love film festivals,” he declares.
Herein is his ultimate revenge — Berlin, Venice, and Cannes festivals have awarded him prizes for his elaborate art-house films, and now the audience at Cannes 2011 is confronted with a seemingly private, seeming simple self-portrait. But if course it isn’t only private and it certainly isn’t simple. And so, viewers are left feeling uneasy.
Another opportunity for revenge drives the story of Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), the morose scholarly protagonist of Joseph Cedar’s Hearat Shulayim (Footnote). His life’s work — a philological study of medieval Talmudic manuscripts aiming to prove that another, more authentic version of the “Jerusalem Bible” once existed — was rendered useless when his academic rival, Yehuda (Micah Lewesohn), found the original manuscript in an archive. Now Eliezer’s only claim to fame is a mention in a footnote (“The only living scholar mentioned by name!”).
He has mixed feelings that his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), also a Talmudic scholar, has received more recognition, for his analysis of medieval marriage practices and his crowd-pleasing lectures. And so Eliezer is uncertain what to do, when he is about to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, an honor that would validate his painstaking fact-finding at the expense of Uriel’s interpretive work.
As father and son confront themselves and one another, the film makes visual their thought processes. Its hectic fast cuts convey Uriel’s agony at trying to draft the Israel Prize committee’s statement summarizing his father’s achievements: “Creative”? Not really — erase. “Meticulous”? Yes. Similarly, images depict his father’s unusual ability to see clues in particular words in the statement, revealing reasons why it was written. Any academic, in any part of the world, might sympathize with their tension, between the desire to understand texts and so analyze the past, and the intention to collect bits of evidence. Hearat Shulayim carefully reconstructs, and mocks, the insular world of traditional Talmudic scholarship, but it critiques a broader, also insular academic world as well.
Hearat Shulayim is a traditional film in more senses than one (at Cannes, the crew refused limousines and walked to the evening screening in the rain to observe the Sabbath). Yet it doesn’t mention that most controversies related to the Israel Prize have to do not with its scholarly judgments, but with its political contexts. Many potential recipients, such as philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, were denied or had to decline the prize because of their sympathy for Palestinians. Hearat Shulayim‘s consideration of Jewish intellectual debates brackets that larger issue, but it is difficult to edit out entirely.