November 29, 2006
On the surface, Time is perhaps Kim Ki-duk's most brash, confrontational, and bituminous film since The Isle, an admirably crafted - and unexpectedly refreshing - return to his more familiar gothic, cringingly blunt, provocateur form after immersing in such aesthetically impeccable, but slight romanticized allegories riddled with obtuse, pseudo Zen mysticism and disjointed orientalism. Ostensibly presented as a dark, cautionary tale of an insecure woman, Seh-hee's (Ji-Yeon Park) desperate attempt to stop the process of time and recreate the spark of a new romance with her committed, long-term lover, Ji-woo (Jung-woo Ha) (a filmmaker who appears to be in the process of editing scenes from 3-Iron) by undergoing drastic facial reconstructive surgery in order to reinvent herself and, in turn, their relationship, the film is also a brutal and scathing exposition into the psychology and morality of contemporary (and in particular, Korean) society's obsession with cosmetic surgery. Nevertheless, despite Kim's penetrating, articulate, and relevant social critique, I can't help but express a certain degree of skepticism towards the very elements that, paradoxically, I find most trenchant and provocative about the film: a resistance that is integrally rooted in the film's uncanny resonance - not only in a vague, overarching, existential thematic semblance with avant-garde novelist Kobo Abe's recurring preoccupations on identity, alienation, and emotional disconnection, but in particular, with Hiroshi Teshigahara's earlier cinematic adaptations of Abe's work - that seem too coincidental not to be, at best, a faithful homage, and at worst, a lazy derivation. Indeed, this apparent plane of aesthetic convergence between Teshigahara's cinema and Kim's aesthetic vision for the film culminates with a similar, progressive montage, stationary camera ending shot, as a face obscured, "transformed" heroine (Hyeon-a Seong) of Time leaves the cosmetic surgeon's office and has a seemingly fateful encounter before slipping away from view and fading into the anonymity of a bustling crowd on a metropolitan city street: an image that seems conceptually readapted from the mise-en-scène of the concluding sequence in Teshigahara's The Face of Another (in which Okuyama's fateful encounter is with the doctor himself), as well as in The Man Without a Map (in the detective's deliberate act of relinquishing traces of his former life by following in the footsteps - and therefore, indirectly assuming the figurative identity - of his missing subject), a reflection of the protagonist's psychological fugue that is manifested in the detective's evasion of the missing man's wife in Teshigahara's film, and in the shattered, unclaimed, pre-operative surgery souvenir portrait in Time. In essence, the film's conflation of past and present (as reflected through the bookending sequence of a recursive encounter) represents the metaphoric collapse, not only of time, but of humanity itself, where identity is reduced to the reinforcement of meaningless social rituals and interchangeable, cosmetic masks, and connection is similarly revealed through equally impulsive and transitory acts of delusive, surrogate intimacy. It is this bracing - and brazen - social criticism that inevitably defines Kim's flawed, but impassioned observation of contemporary society's inherent dysfunctionality in the wake of facile, economic privilege: a lost generation foundering in a youth-oriented culture of vanity, rootlessness, excess, and disposability.