That last sentence strikes me as an ideal summation of Kim's films, which are gruesome and deliberately antagonistic towards the audience, but also highly accomplished and often rewarding as pieces of art. I wouldn't describe myself as a Kim fan, necessarily. I'm more mystified by his work than appreciative. He strikes me as a serious filmmaker who's also extremely immature; together, these divergent qualities make him one of the more irreverent and idiosyncratic directors working today. His repetitive use of religious iconography, psychosexual characterizations, and sociocultural allegory is almost comical at this point, but it all adds to the director's manic aura. And besides, to paraphrase critic Godfrey Cheshire, an auteur is a director whose style you can identify it on a small TV from three feet away with the sound off. Kim meets that mark, and then some. My five favorite Kim films are below.
5. Breath (2007) This is the last Kim film I've actually enjoyed (everything he's made since has proven to be too much for me), a melancholic, even affectionate look at an unconventional relationship between a married woman and prison inmate. The film is all about the literal and figurative barriers that prevent people from being with and fully understanding one another, and though Kim gets a little metaphor-happy (when doesn't he?), this is still highly competent filmmaking.
4. The Bow (2005) This elegiac, occasionally poetic account of a secluded 60-year-old man and the 16-year-old girl he plans to marry when she turns 17 is set entirely on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. The abstract-realist aesthetic poses a number of interesting dichotomies, and the shocking denouement is one of Kim's most inspired moments, ambiguous in a fashion one doesn't normally associate with the director.
3. The Isle (2000) Kim once said that "violence is a kind of body language for some people," which explains why his characters are often silent but communicate their emotions via physical behavior. The intersection of sex and violence is probably the single most overexplored theme in art-house cinema, but Kim has the ability to render repellent material transfixing and, on occasion, beautiful. Such is the case with this early feature, which has subject matter so extreme it baffled critics at the time. (Talking about the film's Sundance premiere, Roger Ebert wrote that "people covered their eyes, peeked out, and slammed their palms back again."); if only they knew what was to come.
2. 3-Iron (2004) Akin to a ghost story in its eerie characterizations and themes of spiritual transcendence, this is easily the director's most romantic film, though, when it comes to Kim, subjects like "romance" are never quite what they appear. The film's silent stretches have the sort of patient and haunting qualities that lead me to believe Kim is a great filmmaker; his ability to illustrate character information, subtext, and symbolism using only his camera is a skill reserved for the masters of the form—if only he'd work this way more often.
1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003) How this zealot for depravity made such a somber, serene film is completely confounding. Even the most ardent Kim detractors have at least begrudgingly respected this drama, easily his best work and one of the major highlights from the Korean New Wave. Quite paradoxically, it's his strangest film because it's also his least vicious—on the surface, at least. It's the film that casts everything else he's done in a different light, a sort of portal into another dimension, one in which Kim favors subtly over flagrancy and tender characterizations over brutal psychodrama. One of the great anomalies in 21st century cinema.