0. The Housemaid and Kim Ki-young's Ghost
“A ghost is floating above Korean cinema, a ghost named Kim Ki-young. It is not only the sense of identity of a cinematic legacy rarely seen in the Korean film industry, but also the manifestation of the spirit of a certain age.” (Lee Yeonho)
In 2010, two films both titled The Housemaid were screened around the same period in Korea. One of them is a digital copy of director Kim Ki-young's film made in 1960, and the other, a remake of this film directed by Im Sang-soo. Kim Ki-young's influence on Korean films is still prevalent to this day. Not only Im Sang-soo, but also Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) and Park Chan-wook (Stoker) express their affection and respect for Kim without hesitation, and it is not difficult to catch scenes influenced by Kim in their movies. Regarding such big impact, critics say a tradition of imagination stemming from Kim Ki-young continues to live on in Korean cinema along with the late director's ghost.
“It's amazing. Not only to discover a true artist of film named Kim Ki-young, but also to discover totally unpredictable art through his works.”
(Jean-Michel Frodon, former editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma)
Interest in film director Kim Ki-young does not exist only in Korea, but also abroad. Kim's The Housemaid, which had been reviewed frequently in Korea and abroad, was able to win support from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation (WCF) to have a digital copy of it produced in 2008. It was against the WCF principle of only supporting Third World countries. But Scorsese approved the support saying he made the decision to support the film because of his personal affection for The Housemaid. Thanks to the support, the Korean Film Archive was able to restore Kim's The Housemaid in digital form in 2010.
1. Memories of Director Kim Ki-young
“Director Kim Ki-young is a monster. First of all, his appearance is like a monster. A big and tall 6 foot frame, bushy hair that looks as if it’s not washed, rough skin that's neither dark nor fair, and his glaring crawfish-like eyes, which are always on guard and anxious-looking when viewing a person or thing.” (Yoo Ji-hoeng)
He hated formality and was uncompromising. Every moment of his life was devoted to filmmaking. 90% of what father spoke of was about scenarios. He rarely worked with an assistant director and also took charge of the posters, theme music, props and art on his own. (Kim Dongho, Kim Ki-young's son)
Director Kim Ki-young, who passed away on the 5th, is known as a stylist very rarely found in the Korean film industry. Called “an eccentric dentist,” Kim Ki-young is one of the top 3 film directors in Korea since the nation's liberation along with Shin Sang-ok and Yu Hyun-mok. Kim drew attention as “a fiendish aesthetician” with his consistent depictions of “sexual identity” through expressionist methods.
After the success of The Housemaid, Kim was the most successful film director of the 1960s. But in the 1970s, a period of strict censorship and control, Geumbyeongmae was censored and his following films failed. Accordingly, from the mid 1970s through the 1980s, Kim Ki-young works on his own under harsh conditions. After the failure of Carnivorous Animal in 1984, Kim Ki-young was forgotten in the Korean film industry for more than a decade.
But in the early 1990s, he was acknowledged again by movie lovers as a master of Korean cult movies and receives the spotlight in Korea and abroad once more after the retrospective screening of his films at the Busan International Film Festival in 1997. However, in 2008, with a retrospective screening at the Berlin Film Festival ahead, Kim Ki-young, who was preparing a new film, dies at the age of 79 with his wife due to a house fire. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
2. Brief History of Director Kim Ki-young's Early Life
The teacher summoned me and told me that I could only become an elementary school teacher because of my talents in various fields (literature, drama, music, art etc.) (Laughs) But I was able to use all these talents making movies. While making movies, I never had the intention to create an artwork. Film is kind of like a hobby for me." (Kim Ki-young)
While studying medicine at Kyoto University in Japan, Kim Ki-young immersed himself in drama and film. After Korea's liberation in 1945, Kim Ki-young returns to Korea, enrolls in Seoul National University medical school, and starts his own drama club at school. He chose the works of Henrik Ibsen, William Shakespeare, and Anton Chekhov, made the stage setting, and directed the plays himself. Kim Ki-young's plays were praised highly. This experience became the foundation of his filmmaking career, which he began without any former experience as an assistant director like many other film directors.
"After evacuating and getting a job at Busan University Hospital, I began to make a culture film under the suggestion of O Yeong-jin, the director of The Wedding Day. At the time, I was paid $3.50 at the hospital while the Liberty News at the United States Information Agency paid me $50. With my first month's salary, I held my wedding. I was sorry to live such a luxurious life while other refugees were starving.( Kim Ki-young)
I Am a Truck, which Kim made during this period, is a personification of a truck showing its day working from dawn to late into the night. The movie was made to encourage the people to take action in overcoming the war and achieving economic recovery. Meanwhile, throughout the movie, there also exists the uniquely grotesque tension commonly found in Kim Ki-young's works. After producing several other culture films, Kim finally makes his debut with his first long film The Box of Death through support from the United States Information Agency.
3. Film Director Kim Ki-young's Works
1) Realism Based on Wartime Experience
“How does humanity suffering from post-war poverty exist to eat 3 meals a day?” ( Kim Ki-young)
One axis of film director Kim Ki-young, famous for his grotesque cult movies, stems from realism though which Kim tries to depict human survival and desires he witnessed during war. During the last years of President Rhee Syngman's dictatorship, Kim made a reality-based trilogy The First Snow, A Defiance of Teenager, and Sad Pastorale. The films realistically depict wartime humanity showing orphans searching for their lost parents amid the ruins and wounded soldiers trying to fight hunger.
"The street scenes describing the dark shadows of war in the form of an image-oriented documentary were the best indeed even in my opinion. (During filming of Defiance of a Teenager) He actually yelled at the street boys at Namdaemun not to look back and to film the street, so the scenes are very realistic.” ( Kim Ki-young)
In the following works as well, we can spot traces of his realist way of raising issues based on war. Such works include The Sea Knows, Woman, Transgression, and Woman of Water. The Sea Knows is a movie reporting the brutality of war and Japanese militarism showing scenes such as a Japanese soldier forcing a Korean student soldier to lick a shoe stained with feces.
In the omnibus film Woman, Kim Ki-young applies his grotesque style in depicting the pain of a mother who lost her child in war. Meanwhile, the film Transgressions, suggests personal hunger due to war as a universal issue through the film's topic “empty an empty bowl,”
2) Dissection of a Human Desire
A half nude housemaid drenched in rain looks into a window of a middleclass family playing the piano. This creepy scene of The Housemaid results from the sharp dissonance of natural human desire and the desire for ascent of social status. Variations of this terrifying motif repeatedly appear throughout Kim Ki-young's films.
Kim Ki-young has a certain style. It's a certain bizarre way of depicting a plant or meat-eating man and woman and the grotesque ending of sexual desire through declarative written dialogue and exaggerated art in an offbeat rhythm. Passion driven love triangles which commonly appear in Kim Ki-young's films have an animal-like nature and crude bourgeois desire tangled up underneath.
“Kim Ki-young's films have no conventional plot and only have situations clearly showing the human consciousness. Kim is quite obsessed with the structure of human consciousness in an experimental and monomaniac way. He would always depict an aspect of Korean society in an exaggerated way, but nobody feels the need to discuss whether it is total nonsense or not. If the story is absurd, it's simply because the director views the Korean society of the time absurdly.”(Ha Gil-jong, film director)
3) The Appearance, Repetition, and Variation of The Housemaid,
In 1960, Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid appears on screen. It is known as the most bizarre and modern realist masterpiece in Korean film history. What Kim Ki-young stresses about this film is the reflection of the times in reality.
“A good movie always reflects some aspects of the reality of the times. The Housemaid also depicts some social situations of the time. At the time, young women in Jeollado and Gyeongsangdo would all move to Seoul. The jobs they found in the city were limited to prostitution, housemaids, and bus driver assistants. At the time, there weren’t many factories to work at. Without such knowledge of the times, it is hard to figure out whether the story of the film is realistic or not....At the time of screening, many housewives tormented by their maids would stand up in the middle of the movie shouting out ”Die maid!“”
The Housemaid also deals with the Geumchon murder case that appeared in the newspaper. The wife in full control of the family's finance, the helpless husband, and the housemaid from the country all reflect the social situation of the time. Afterwards Kim Ki-young continues to depict the changing Korean society and crisis of the bourgeois family every 10 years in his following works such as Woman of Fire and Woman of Fire '82.
“Woman of Fire is a remake of The Housemaid, modifying the story to fit the social situation of the 1970s. Kim made Woman of Fire '82 to represent the 1980s. The movies were made at the request of rural businesses, but I think the 3 films differ from each other pretty much. This is because what I focus on is not on the story itself but the characters and social setting. Korea went through great, rapid social changes in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. This is the reason why the latter works are more critical of civilization. To show the difference between each period, for example, the 2-story western style house is switched into a chicken farm in the city outskirts.” (Kim Ki-young)
After Woman of Fire (1971), a remake of The Housemaid, made a big hit, Kim Ki-young works with the same cast on another variation of The Housemaid titled Chungnyeo (1972). Based on a real-life story, the film adopts the basic structure of The Housemaid while projecting the rules of the wilderness to the relationship between man and woman where the female eats up the male after mating. The shocking situation where the successful wife and concubine share the sexually and economically helpless husband is later shown in a more extreme form in the 1984 film Carnivorous Animal, in which the male character regresses to a toddler.
4) The Dictatorship and Reform of the Film Law, the Unfortunate Later Years
During the Yushin regime in the 1970s, all film companies were merged and the foreign film import quota system was abused and resulted in rough-and-ready films produced in order to fill the quota. This was a tough time for Kim Ki-young as well. In this period of tyrannical censorship and control, Kim made films including Transgressions, Promises, Ieoh Island, and Geumbyeongmae (later released as Ban Geum-ryun). In the film I-eoh Island based on the novel by Lee Cheong-jun, the scene where Lee Hwa-si has sex with the dead body the exorcist fishes out from sea was censored. In addition, Kim Ki-young's scenario for the erotic Chinese classic Geumbyeongmae was also censored and the film was not released for 10 years.
But despite such hardship, Kim Ki-young is able to further develop his themes. While he dealt with realism in the 1950s and 60s, and psychological and expressionistic exploration into human sexual desire in the 1970s, in the late 1970s amid rapid social change, he moves onto issues like pollution, the environment and the eco system. In his films I-eoh Island and Hunting for Idiots, what blocks the path to paradise and threatens reality is the destruction of the eco system. In spite of the harsh conditions for film production, Kim continues to raise issues he faces in reality in his films.
4. Kim Ki-young's Style and Seal
Kim Ki-young is famous for not shooting a single scene without a storyboard. Except for during the tough 1970s, Kim never shot a movie extempore on the spot. His unique films are born from storyboards.
“I have to have the storyboard complete 4 or 5 days before the shoot. I work on it in my mind and modify it in my style. But even nowadays, my storyboards are filled with codes only I can read. In addition, my handwriting is so terrible people say it looks like worms wriggling and crawling. Nobody can read it. I also add some illustrations for each cut, but these are also strictly for myself. I don't like other people looking at my storyboards, especially actors and actresses because if I show it to them, they never follow the storyboard and do something totally different.” (Kim Ki-young)
Kim Ki-young's storyboards include details on film props, house structure, and how characters' emotions should be expressed. Next to each scene, the director's descriptions are added to visualize the scene. This elaborate and thorough storyboard was a blueprint for only Kim Ki-young himself and withholds his own unique style.
2) Design of Shadows and Colors
After making The Box of Death in 1955, Kim Ki-young pondered over how to create the certain atmosphere he wanted, which seemed impossible. He inquired a photographer who studied photography in Japan and learned about lighting from him.
“Since then, I took interest in lights and began to design my own lighting style. As seen in The Housemaid, the proportion of light on the character and background is set in a special way. Because the whole film is shot on the set, I control the mood and atmosphere anyway I want. Many people said they never saw such beautiful scenes in their lives. My secret to good lighting is using reflected rays.” (Kim Ki-young)
Afterwards, Kim continued to experiment with shadows in black and white movies and lighting in color films to create his own unique color. Jung Il-sung, who took charge of cinematography in Woman of Fire, Transgressions, and I-eoh Island, was Kim's closest co-worker in creating psychological effects using colors and light. Because they had no appropriate filters, they would even break beer bottles to hold in front of the camera or repaint the set's background several times overnight.
“Light in film is not merely light but could even express the situation of a certain period. With light, you can express the period's atmosphere and the film's character. …Though we can't change the real-life background, we can give it character by using lights.” (Kim Ki-young)
Through light and color, Kim Ki-young tried to speak about the time. We can see this in cinematography director Jung Il-sung's testimony.
“He asked me to take out the colors in Transgressions and I-eoh Island so I separated the colors. This was deeply related with the atmosphere of the late Yushin regime. Having lived through the Rhee Syngman and Park Chunghee governments, he frequently spoke of using bright colors when the good times came. He'd say the vivid colors we used in the 1970s, were our colors of resistance." (Jung Il-sung)
3) Kim Ki-young's Rats
Kim Ki-young makes the set himself and small props also, or buys them at the market and arranges them on the set himself as well. Among the many props, the most important prop used for creating a grotesque scene is rats. In The Housemaid, the rat that appears before the maid is an important foreshadowing implying the nightmare that is to hit the family. When making variations of The Housemaid in his following works, Kim continues to use rats as his key props. At first, the rat is merely an unwelcomed guest, but later on in Chungnyeo, a pet rat appears and a herd of rats also fall from the ceiling onto the heroine. Even rat dumplings appear in the film Kim was preparing before his death titled Evil Woman.
“Rats have an amazing desire for reproduction. The rodents have a very strong sexual instinct hidden inside. Chickens lay eggs every day. That is because of their desire for reproduction. And rats and chickens always live around humans... (When asked why rats were particularly emphasized as disgusting animals), there is another disgusting being in the house. It's the maid.” (Kim Ki-young)
“I can't leave out rats when talking about my father. Rats appear a lot in father's films. Actually, the rats that appeared in Woman of Fire were specially bred and trained at home for the movie. (Laughs) He brought 15 white rats home. The rats were later painted black for filming. But the problem was after that. The rats had multiplied into hundreds and they would even get into our blankets when we slept. (Screaming in audience) We had to get several cats to get rid of the rats. Anyway, we had to live with rats for some years.” (Kim Dongwon, Kim Ki-young's son)
4) Kim Ki-young's Actresses
Kim Ki-young had a special eye for discovering new stars. Top actresses of the time including Moon Hee and Kim Ji-mee made their debuts in Kim's films. But Kim Ki-young's 3 special actresses were Lee Eun-sim who starred in The Housemaid, Yoon Yeo-jeong in Woman of Fire and Chungnyeo, and Lee Hwa-si in I-eoh Island and Ban Geum-ryun. The 3 actresses appeared nearly only in Kim Ki-young's works and their unique appearances played a key role in creating Kim Ki-young's special style. In particular, Lee Hwa-si with her glamorous and decadent beauty and strong charisma can only be seen in Kim Ki-young's films.
“As you can see in I-eoh Island, the director did not like me appearing pretty on the screen. So I always had to sharpen knives or make eccentric expressions. But even now, if I have another chance, I would like to play a stronger character.”(Lee Hwa-si)
“Even now, I don't like beautiful or handsome actresses and actors. At the set, I darken the light on a beautiful face and mess it up. It's my way of focusing on the acting going on inside rather than the outside.” (Kim Ki-young)
Till the day of his death, Kim Ki-young was completing the scenario for his new film. It is another sequel of The Housemaid, about a country girl in the 1970s who comes to Seoul alone and gets a job at an ob/gyn clinic in a slum-like neighborhood. The girl gets involved in a love triangle with the doctor and his wife. Kim Ki-young's unique grotesque and bizarre style reaches its peak in this film, which unlike how many predict, ends in a happy ending. Kim Ki-young took pride in the film saying it will become his new cult style through such a twist at the story's end. But Kim eventually died in an unfortunate accident and Evil Woman remains unfilmed.
“Up to this day, I only spent money on visible things. I had no interest for drinking or idling away. I saved money on food and concentrated only on filmmaking. My wife agreed with my lifestyle. She'd say tears would pour out from her eyes when she saw the credits go up the screen. She went through much trouble to finance production costs as I knew nothing about money. I think my success rate is about 30%. One out of 3 films made a big hit, so I was quite successful. We were able to survive because of that... When running the Shinhan Film Company, we went bankrupt and lost around $2.5 million. We would be rich if we didn't pay back the debt at the time. I'm not able to make films in my later years because of that blow. But I have no regrets about my life." (Kim Ki-young)
. Film Directors' View of Kim Ki-young. Forum, Cine 21, Jan. 22, 2007
. Lee Yeonho. I Saw the Ghost of Kim Ki-young. Cine 21, Jun. 8, 2010 issue
. The Great Man of Sex and Expressionism in Film/ The Kyunghyang Shinmun 1998.02.06.
. Yoo Ji-hoeng. Interviews with Kim Ki-young: 24 years of Dialogue. 2006
. Lee Hyoin. Rising Against “The Housemaid”. Beneath the Sky, 2002
. Lee Yeonho. The Legendary Stigma. Korean Film Archive, 2007
Curator — Lee Jiyoung, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications