A Charlatan – A Fragment for “A Critical Biography of Kim Ki-young”
Geum Dong-hyeun
Korean film historian

1. A brief history of Korean cinema – Kim Ki-young

It was the first time Kim Ki-young appeared as a subject of an auteur theory, where Lee Young-il wrote “Desire = Fiendishness of dark blood” in January, 1963. Lee Young-il began his article by “Director Kim Ki-young is one in the Korean cinema industry, who I recommend, that can be called a “monster”. He was born with his monstrous character, and there is no reason not to recommend him. As a subject of an auteur theory, Kim Ki-young is the one person that cannot be defined.”[1] The monstrous strength of his films were well acknowledged, meanwhile Kim Ki-young was still abandoned from historicization. Kim Ki-young has been repeatedly described as an eccentric or a mutation.

        Researchers who have watched The Housemaid would comment, “watching this film(The Housemaid) which came out of nowhere, I seriously wonder about its birth,”[2] and only add another layer to Kim Ki-young’s simple and yet problematic biography. For a long time, Kim Ki-young was a borderline of Korean cinema history, a threshold to expand its territory. The same was true in terms of genealogy. If you think of Yoo Hyeon-mok, Shin Sang-ok, and Kim Ki-young, the troika of the time, it is generally well known that Kim Ho-seon and Lee Jang-ho worked under Yoo Hyeon-mok and Shin Sang-ok. But for Kim Ki-young, it is not easy to recall anyone.

        (One person who can be confirmed to be a part of Kim Ki-young's genealogy is Kang Cheol-woong, famous for his adult play The Professor and his Female Disciple. You can examine Kang Cheio-woong in My True Story ep. 6, “I undress women everyday - Kang Cheol-woong.” The episode also features an erotic film director Song Bum-geun, who was an assistant director for Neumi(1979) and Woman of Water(1979). Quite accidentally, Kim Jeong-cheol, who played the leading role in seven Kim Ki-young films starting with Promises(1975), directed several erotic films later in 1990s. From this, it may be good to call Kang Cheol-woong, Song Beom-geun and Kim Jeong-cheol as the hidden members of Kim Ki-young’s genealogy.)
        Then the situation reverses. In 1983, the video market opened and videophilia emerged. In 1991 when campus activism declined, video film festivals took its place. In 1992, unfamiliar movies became the game’s stakes in Young-qui-bang(movie trivia quiz chat rooms) of dial-up internet access. Cinema magazine Road Show published special features on cult films, and the word “cult” became a trend. People became enthusiastic with “films that are attractive in the way that they are inferior and subordinated, and that you can only find them by turning your eyes to the outskirts,” namely, cult films.[3] Naturally, the question “is there any cult in Korean cinema?” rose, and Kim Ki-young's Carnivorous Animals(1984) and Hunting for Idiots(1984) became the main target of Young-qui-bang.
        Dongsoong Art Center and Busan International Film Festival saw the change and brought him to light. That was how Kim Ki-young was reinstated.[4] “Imaginary genealogy,” quoting from Jeong Han-seok, or “ghosts of Kim Ki-young” from Lee Yeon-ho was detected in films of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, that is, in films of two directors who showed themselves as fans of Kim Ki-young. Naturally, in Korean cinema history, Kim Ki-young was no more a borderline, he became an “authentic ‘Korean film’ director” who produced a system for “Korean film” itself.[5]
        Kim Ki-young shifted from periphery to center. Nevertheless something did not change: in Korean cinema history, Kim Ki-young was written as an exceptional, isolated, completely autonomous being, or as a completely heteronomous being discovered by chance in changes of cultural environment. Each individual’s actual spatial location is formed by intersecting the heteronomy of the structure with the individual, or with the relative autonomy of the underlying structure. Therefore, despite the quantitative abundance of discourse regarding Kim Ki-young, agency of Kim Ki-young himself is missed out, – agency that adapts himself to, and at the same time utilizes, the structure of Korea or Korean cinema. From barren isolation to the fertile center, Kim Ki-young stands in “between.”

2. Taking a detour with Ieoh Island

Here I recall Ieoh Island(1977). Unlike the conventional figures in Kim Ki-young’s films, boasting of their vigorous fertility, Ieoh Island is a movie about infertility. The “Dong-sik(s)” who would cause trouble trying to compensate for the loss of his penis by entrusting livelihood to his wife – the same was true of Kim Ki-young who entrusted livelihood to his wife, Kim Yoo-bong. Thus “Dong-sik(s)” is Kim Ki-young himself – even his penis loses its function. Yelling at Park “I don’t want to hear it, are you going to make me worry about expenses?”, Chun Nam-seok joins the “Dong-sik(s)” with spermatozoon that cannot fertilize (because Park does not menstruate) nor be implanted (because all abalone in Chun’s breeding farm die from wastewater). From the state of infertility and the literal meaning of Ieoh – an island of different fish – can Kim Ki-young the “mutant” be thought of?
        Could I make a leap and say that Chun Nam-seok’s lines “I want to build the largest fish farm in this country,” are Kim Ki-young’s own desire? As if bewitched, ignoring logic and context, I begin to assume Ieoh Island as a step in which “Kim Ki-young-like film” enters Korean films. On the island of infertility, Min-ja eventually gives birth. How? ① By having sex with Sun Woo-hyun, an outsider who searched for Chun Nam-seok. ② By having sex with the dead body of Chun Nam-seok by nailing a spike in his penis.

Since 1957, the Korean cinema ministry and office have compensated film production companies that won international film festival awards with actual expenses and an entitlement to import foreign films.[6] In the 1970s, as the audience of Korean films decreased significantly due to the spread of television and foreign films, production companies began to lean towards international film festivals. “The reason why I persistently submit films to international film festivals, wasting an entry fee of 40-50 thousand won, is for the compensation of quota on foreign films that comes with the awards.”[7]
        From then, “films for international film festivals” were produced in order to obtain the quota on foreign films, equivalent to 5 million won at the time. As the title of the cited article, the 1970s began with a “boom in shallow international film festival entries.” Meanwhile, note that the Ministry of Culture and Information, in charge of censorship at the time, allowed sex and action scenes only to films for entry, at a level that would not be allowed in domestic films. It resulted from an assumption, which the Ministry of Culture and Information and filmmakers both agreed, that the “restriction on expression” in films was one reason that Korean films has fallen behind.[8]
        ① Films to be submitted to international film festivals had ② relaxed censorship regulations. The sentence written on the censorship document for Ban Geum-ryun, reading “the board agrees that it is inappropriate for domestic screening, but exporting for foreign currency acquisition is possible,”[9] accurately summarizes the film industry in the 1970s, and it also confirms the natural fact – which is nevertheless often denied – that Kim Ki-young was a part of it.
        Listing Kim Ki-young’s filmography thoroughly in chronological order, some changes can be detected in 1972. Beginning with Chungnyeo(1972), on the basis of his violent imagination, reducing humans to reproductive instruments and viewing it with “humorous” perspective – therefore actors in Kim Ki-young’s films exaggerates the outward instead of expressing inner subtleties – Kim Ki-young started to remove logic daringly and add genre related icons and decorative mise-en-scène. What happened here?
        There may be many factors. But regarding “the boom in international film festivals,” I cannot help but recalling the fact that Woman of Fire(1971) was nominated for the competition section at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival (hereinafter “Sitges Film Festival”), and that Youn Yuh-jung, who played Myung-ja, won the Best Actress Award.[10] In the censorship document for Chungnyeo, there is a sentence in the explanatory statement reading “[the planning of] Sequel for Woman of Fire[the original title of Chungyeo] owes to both artistry and box office performance of Woman of Fire.” Did Sitges Film Festival act as the basis for “artistry” here? In other words, recognition by the Sitges Film Festival worked as the main reason for the production of Chungnyeo, and in the end, probably made the film more “Sitges-like.”
        Sitges-like film? Terence Fisher, Shindo Kaneto, Honda Ishiro, and Mario Bava were invited to the informative section of the very first Sitges Film Festival in 1968. The same year, James Whale, Tod Browning, Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang were invited to the retrospective section. The following year in 1969, Michael Powell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and once again Terence Fisher and Honda Ishiro were invited to the informative section.
        “Sitges-like film” can be drawn by – sometimes roughly overlooking individual characteristics of each director – loosely tying up the aforementioned directors, from the commonality shared among them. By commonality I mean the irregular narrative, rejection of reality, willingness to display sex and violence. The suspicion that the “Sitges-like film,” established with historicities of individual directors diminished, was the framework for Kim Ki-young's films in the 1970s, is solidified by the censorship document for Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death(1978).
        “Intention of production: Our film studio aims to enter the Sitges Festival of Fantasy and Horror Films, and intends to fulfill the purpose by assigning the award winning director Kim Ki-young, who majored in natural sciences, to take the ‘megaphone’.”[11] The studio changed the title of the film, from Woman with a Butterfly Tattoo to Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, and the reason for the retitling is written in the document as “we wish to retitle the film Woman with a Butterfly Tattoo as Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death to be more suitable, considering the characteristics of the film festival. We eagerly hope for your permission.”[12]
        A large number of Kim Ki-young’s films we can now watch – by the VOD service provided by the Korean Film Archive – have not even been screened in Korea at the time. According to the censorship documents for Woman of Fire, Chungnyeo, Promises, Ieoh Island, and Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, “violent scenes” or “sexual scenes” were generally declared to be deleted or shortened.
        Taking some representative examples: from the candy sex scene in Chungnyeo, “excessive parts such as exposure of breasts in caress scenes, undressing scenes and completely naked scenes” were to be removed.[13] From the dish sex scene in Ieoh Island, “All sounds of dishes (were) to be removed”, in other words the whole scene completely removed.[14] In this context, it would not be entirely wrong to say that since 1971, Kim Ki-young's films were made by and made for overseas, specifically the Sitges Film Festival.
        Then something interesting happens. Let’s refer back to the characteristics of “Sitges-like films”: irregular narrative, rejection of reality, willingness to display sex and violence. These meet with the characteristics of B movies, which are always defined by tentative consensus. Therefore, it would be safe to say, passing through Park Chan-wook's words that quote “cult movies are mostly B movies,"[15] that what constitute the the cult of Kim Ki-young in the 1990s are derived from Kim Ki-young’s determination for the Sitges Film Festival in the 1970s.
        From the outskirts of Korean films then overseas, Kim Ki-young’s films have returned to Korea. Therefore, it is no coincidence the Sitges Film Festival was the main gateway to overseas film festivals for directors in the 1990s – those who tend to be gathered as the “New Korean Cinema” – who passed through the cult of Kim Ki-young and confessed its influence.[16]

On November 24, 1986 the Korean Film Archive acquired the film stock of Yangsan Province(1955).[17] But the last scene of the film was lost. From the VOD provided by KMDb* the movie suddenly ends with the letters “end” that appear to have been inserted by a “can dealer”[18] using a different font from other letters in the film, with the surface of the film violently scratched. In an interview held in 1997 at Kim Ki-young retrospective program at the Dongsoong Art Center, Kim Ki-young filled the ending scene of Yangsan Province
        “Ok[Ok-rang] crawls up to the grave and goes into it. Then she has sex with Su-dong[dead and buried before the scene] and they go up to heaven.”[19] Like necrophilia in Ieoh Island(1977) and the sex scene with a resurrected woman in Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death(1978), this ending scene fits with elements of the “Kim Ki-young” we imagine. Accordingly, Lee Yeon-ho and Huh Ji-woong accepted Kim Ki-young’s testimony without any doubt and called the ending scene of Yangsan Province (that does not exist) as ‘Kim Ki-young-like.’[20]
        However, it is extremely unlikely that Yangsan Province would end with an unconventional sex scene. In 1956, the year after the release of Yangsan Province, the board of censorship found even “kissing scenes” and “hugging scenes” to be “violating social moral standards of our country” hence banned the screening of Madame Freedom.[21] Even in the inner logic of Yangsan Province, sex is only implied by a change in time using a dissolve transition with a magic lantern. In fact, right after the release of Yangsan Province, film critic Heo Baek-nyeon summarized the ending scene as follows. “It ends with a story of getting stabbed by her mother’s knife and crawling to Su-dong’s grave, saying ‘It is better this way.’ Then their love is fulfilled in heaven.”[22] Given the coordinates of the Korean cinema industry in the 1950s, it is difficult to accept Kim Ki-young's testimony as a fact.
        But let’s not prematurely dismiss the value of a testimony. Even if the testimony itself is a lie, we can still discover the truth in the process of its fabrication and distribution.
        “As in the saying ‘a sparrow near a school sings the primer,’ even the kid delivering meals to the recording studio would comment ‘oh my, that’s going to get censored for sure…’ and that lines had to be revised. Everyone was a censor(?) and everyone suffered censorship neurosis while censorship was recited like a song.”[23] As Kim Ho-seon stated, censorship was a precondition for production and acceptance of Korean films.
        It was the same for Kim Ki-young, whose film prints were cut out several times. Therefore, when filling in the ending scene of Yangsan Province with violence, Kim Ki-young had to be conscious of the boundaries of censorship granted by the authorities. It is presumed that he may have had pressure demanding a violent ending. The reason Videophilia of the 1990s indulged in Kim Ki-young was because of his exceptionality and de-historicity. The first question from the interview held at Dongsoong Art Center retrospective program in 1997, the interview which filled in the ending scene of Yangsan Province, was "Did you know that you are a cult director admired by some young film fans in Korea?"[24]
        When strange rumors about Kim Ki-young spread across Chungmuro, Lee Yeon-ho had a suspicion that the source of the rumor was “Kim Ki-young” himself.[25] Regarding this suspicion and the context of the interview, I infer that Kim Ki-young intentionally lied. He intentionally inscribed fake history into the void of the obtained film. The truthfulness is not about the authenticity of the content, but the fake history itself. Kim Ki-young uses the perforated “empty archive”[26] of Korean films as an opportunity for production. He himself thrust “Kim Ki-young” as a historical and an existential entity into those gaps of the archive and added a new “Kim Ki-young” on top of it.
        To satisfy the script of videophilia, Kim Ki-young, a charlatan, readily kills reality even if it means killing himself. With the violent imagination to leave only the necessary parts and dispose everything else from his own corpse, Kim Ki-young inevitably became one unique cinematic figure in the Korean history of cinema. As when Park Ki-hyung, while filming Whispering Corridors, wanted Kim Ki-young to make a cameo appearance. Also it is known that Shin Yeon-sik is preparing a movie about one night of Kim Ki-young’s filming.

3. A spoiler

“It was two a.m. in the morning, I ran down. Ashes were piled higher than me.” Kim Dong-won, Kim Ki-young’s son, said he had a “bizarre experience” after the house was burnt down. It burned down to ashes, but a document wrapped in plastic was found. It was Kim Ki-young’s will, written “Dong-won, please read.” Kim Dong-won recalls, “I was taken aback. The will began with a blame, ‘I told your mother not to buy this house, but she was so adamant about it.’ Then it goes on like this: ‘I am floating in the air looking down at our front yard, and it looks like I'm dead. I can see you (Dong-won) putting a tripod and digging the ground.’” His father was describing exactly what he was doing in their front yard.[27]

Thus I often suspect. Think of the scene from Ieoh Island, when Chun Nam-seok is sucked into the darkness from a boat. The moment when fiction and reality are disturbed in the novel Ieodo and paradoxically prove the existence of “Ieodo.” Did Chun Nam-seok jump off the boat or was he jumped off the boat?

[1] Lee Young-il, “Desire = Fiendishness of dark blood,” Cinema, January 1963, pp 56~58.

[2] Lee Hyo-in et al., The Study of Korean Film History 1960-1979, Korean Film Archive(eds.), Yichae, 2004, p 63.

[3] Jung Han-seok, “The Constellation of an indulger – One side of the 1990s cinephile and cinephilia,” Munhakdongne vol. 24 - 1, Munhakdongne Publishing Group, 2017, p 626.

[4] Jung Sung-il, “KINO Chief Editor Interview,” from Director Kim Ki-young Website, 2001.

[5] Yoo Un-seong, “Fragments - Korean Cinema, willingness for style,” in Ghosts and Watchmen, Mediabus, 2018, p 29.

[6] “Changes in the domestic film compensation system,” in Korean Movie Handbook: Beginning to 1976, Korean Film Corporation, 1977, pp 243~245 .

[7] “A Boom in Shallow International Film Festival Entries,” Dong-a Ilbo, November 26, 1970.

[8] The mechanism of censorship in Korean cinema in the 1970s is written with reference to the following: Song A-reum, A Study on the Dynamics of Korean Film Censorship and Cultural Politics in the 1970s, Seoul National University Ph.D. Dissertation, 2019.

[9] “Rejection notification of domestic feature,” from the censorship documents for The Forbidden Legend Sex & Chopsticks, cited from Song A-reum, op. cit, p 74.

[10] “Explanatory statement,” from the censorship document for Chungnyeo.

[11] “Woman with a Butterfly Tattoo,” from the censorship document for Woman after a Killer Butterfly.

[12] “Reason for retitling,” from the censorship document for Chungnyeo.

[13] “Censorship opinion,” from the censorship document for Chungnyeo.

[14] “Censorship opinion,” from the censorship document for Ieoh Island.

[15] Park Chan-wook, “B movie enthusiasts face-to-face,” KINO, September 2001, p 71.

[16] Kovacsics, V. and Salvado, A., “Made for Sitges? The Reception of the South Korean thriller in Spain through a case study of The Sitges Film Festival,” L’ATALANTE, 29, 2020.

[17] The date of the acquisition was confirmed with the help of Hwang Min-jin, from domestic data collection team at the Korea Film Archive.

*trans. note. Full film of Yangsan Province is available on YouTube(https://youtu.be/xmxYZ9rylhU) with English and Italian subtitles.

[18] After the theater screenings in the 1950s, the “rainy” (with lots of scratches on the surface) film prints were coined by “can dealers.” It was screened using cotton cloth as a screen in mountainous villages. (Kang Dae-sun, About Korean Movies: 1950s Korean Films, Yichae, 2004, pp 20-21.)

[19] Kim Young-jin and Kim Ki-young, “Kim Ki-young’s Unpublished Interview,” 1997.

*This interview was not released to the public, but I was able to access it with the help of the film critic Kim Young-jin.

[20] Lee Yeon-ho, Legendary Stigma-Director Kim Ki-young, Korea Film Archive, 2007, p 72~73. Huh Ji-woong, The Memories of the Ghost - Korean horror films of the 1960s to the 1980s, Korea Film Archive, 2010, p 19.

[21] “The troubling kiss scene - Madame Freedom banned from screening,” Dong-a Ilbo, June 9, 1956.

[22] Huh Baek-nyeon, “Direction of Korean Cinema - Problems raised by Yangsan Island” part 1, Chosun Ilbo, November 6, 1955.

[23] Kim Ho-seon, “The flagpole of freedom and the flag of the square image,” Screen Monthly, December 1978, p 28.

[24] Kim Young-jin and Kim Ki-young, op. cit.

[25] Lee Yeon-ho, op. cit, p 34.

[26] Kim So-young, The Prospects of Modern Time: Watching an Invisible Movie, Hyunsilmunhwa, 2010, p 25.

[27] Chung Yong-in, “[Exclusive] The late director Kim Ki-young’s last script, Survivor found,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, June 28, 2013.

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