I confess that I always approach Kim Ki Duk films with some trepidation. It’s not that they’re bad: Kim is a master film-maker, and just about every film he’s made is a work of art. It’s just that Kim’s films are visceral. Kim’s films explore the pain of life, probing with bloody fingers in the meat of human suffering. In short, Kim’s films hurt.
Birdcage Inn is no different. The characters are all unhappy, with a pain that’s visible but never discussed. But don’t imagine for a moment that this makes it a bad film. Kim has a gift for taking us on a journey through the intimate lives of ordinary people, and in this case we see the world of cheap seaside prostitution.
In Birdcage Inn, Kim takes us into the grim existence of people on the margin of society, without slipping into melodrama. Jin-ah, ‘the girl’, is requested by male guests with the same impersonal casualness with which they’d order a pot of tea. Lee Ji-eun’s performance makes Jin-ah a gentle unassuming girl whose demeanour implicitly condones her own depersonalisation, even as she herself clearly suffers from it.
Part of the magic of Kim’s films is that the interaction, the expression, is largely conveyed without words. There’s no lengthy explanations of how characters feel, or why they behave as they do, or what they want. They simply act and react, letting the emotions show through. And you can be assured that, in a Kim Ki Duk film, these ordinary emotions will be expressed in ways that take us beyond our everyday world. So Hye-mi doesn’t abuse Jin-ah: she simply snatches the toothpaste when Jin-ah reaches for it. When Jin-ah and Hye-mi’s father (as the inn’s owner) are arrested and jailed briefly, Jin-ah’s wordless tears provoke a clumsy gesture of comfort that mistakes the cause and makes her cry all the harder.
Lee Hae-eun, as Hye-mi, the daughter of the brothel owners who resents her family’s business, is captivating. Her forceful and constant rejection of Jin-ah is played straight and without histrionics, and her development over the course of the film is gradual and credible. There’s a strong thread of sexual awakening, and acceptance or rejection of aspects of sexual interaction, which demonstrate Kim’s mastery. No predictable plot for him, in this or any other aspect: his characters each come to their own accommodation, each finding within themselves not an answer, but a means of surviving.
Another aspect of Kim’s films that causes me trouble is that they’re just so damned hard to write about. It’s very difficult to describe the journey contained somehow between opening and closing credits, except to say that it is a journey, an odyssey, an experience that changes the viewer forever. Kim’s films are slow, meandering, and filled with the pain of ordinary people. They’re not comfortable films, nor easily digested, nor will they appeal to all. But they are films that will make you think. Films that will return to your mind day after day. Films that will make you question some of your assumptions about the world and its ways. And, most of all, films that will make you feel, intensely.