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Address Unknown
cast: Don Kun, Yang Min, Jung Ban, Min-kim Young, and Hyun-cho Jae

director: Kim Ki-duk

115 minutes (18) 2001
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Kim Ki-duk's film has been a while making its appearance at least in the UK and, after viewing it, in some ways one can see why. As unflinching and as memorable as the other works which have made him out as perhaps Korea's greatest filmmaker - The Isle, Bad Guy (2001), 3-Iron (2004) included - Address Unknown (aka: Suchwiin bulmyeong) is as uncompromising in its view of humanity as any of them, and with many of the director's characteristically disturbing moments intact.

Set in and around a US air force base in Korea 17 years after the end of the Korean conflict, and mainly focusing on the travails and tribulations of the residents of a nearby village Address Unknown was, the director says, a way to explore and represent the dehumanising effect of war. It's also, as others have noticed, about other things too: language, family relationships, the debasement of tradition, and violence amongst them. There is no real central point to the film, although arguably the relationship between the American flyer and Eun-ok (Min-jang Ban) gives it its main drama. Korean cinema frequently has at its heart the pain caused by the 1950s' war and the painful division of the country into two halves thereafter, Here the psychic trauma created is symbolised by the base, and the pain resulting is acted out in varying degrees by those who live and work in its shadow.

In Kim's unnamed village the principal business appears to be the butchering of dogs for food - a particularly brutal affair, though the film does claim no animals were mistreated during the filming - by one Dog Eye (Jae-hyung Jo, also notable in Bad Guy and The Isle). Dog Eye despises teenaged Chang-Guk (Don-kun Yang) the son of an absent American soldier, for being of mixed descent. Letters to his missing father, sent from his mother, are being returned 'address unknown'. For his part, Chang-Guk makes his solitary friend in Ji-Hum (Young-min Kim, also in the same director's much more contemplative Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, 2003). He's a sensitive, withdrawn artist, bullied by his war veteran father. Meanwhile Ji-Hum has a crush on Eun-ok. With her eye damaged by a childhood accident, she in turn has a relationship with an unstable, drug dealing American flyer, (Mitch Malum), who promises her a corrective operation on the promises of becoming his girl...

The bleakness of the film, one both of landscape and the heart, reminded this viewer of the Chinese film Blind Shaft (aka: Man Jing) made the same year. But the latter is more about the degradation wrought by political economics, whereas the malaise at the centre of Kim's work is more pathological. It is also more relentlessly grim and less cynical than that tale of couple of serial killers at work in Chinese coal mines to such an extent that the viewer at times wonders if anyone will be left alive by the end. This narrative ruthlessness, as critics have noticed, ultimately undermines some of the impact the film might otherwise have had.

Another flaw is the performance of the main American actor; Malum's acting has been for some a distraction, although I found it weak, if passable. Korean directors sometimes make unfortunate casting decisions for their English speaking parts, one thinks of the problems which attend the otherwise excellent J.S.A. No doubt the home audience would not care about or notice such shortcomings, so it seems pointless to chide Kim too much over this weakness, especially as elsewhere the cast are generally excellent.

Ultimately, what makes Address Unknown so striking is Kim's imagery and the choice of actions by his characters, so spiritually and emotionally rootless. Seen in this light, the writer-director's title is especially apt, both referring literally to the official stamp on front of envelopes returning to the mother, as well as to the anonymous village of his stories. Like Bad Guy and The Isle, the current film also contains individuals who exist on the edge of human relations, although here it is not just persecuted lovers. To a certain extent all of his characters have lost their way, either represented living rootlessly in an old army bus, being casually inhumane to animals or each other, or simply by valuing preferment suggested army medals, relics and pensions even good looks, over genuine human connection. And when times are so out of joint, some striking images are the result: the death of a major character head buried in a frozen paddy field; a man hung by dogs; the cut-out paper eye (an especially treasureable, Dali-esque moment) on the face of Eun-ok, the killing of the dogs over a dirty puddle, and so on. In fact there's a touch of surreality about the film that continues right until the end, and the soldiers crawling in the field. Ultimately, Kim's achievement is in unifying so convincingly, and without any monotony, a multi-charactered narrative that includes such extreme concerns as disfigurement, bestiality, and murder. If you fancy such a strong and austere cinematic brew, then you won't be disappointed.

It's a shame that such a striking film by a major director has not come better packaged. While the visual presentation in okay, the special features consist of an absurdly short (three-minute) interview with the director, and an even briefer introduction by him to his work. It's clear that as Kim's career goes from strength to strength, and Korean cinema generally makes more of an impression internationally, any viewer should expect more.
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