Kim Ki-duk is probably best known in the west for his Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), or the superior 3-Iron (2004), but the man’s been making features since 1996. Address Unknown is his sixth feature, sliding in nicely between earlier efforts including the underrated The Isle and Real Fiction and just before Bad Guy and The Coast Guard.
A superior film to The Coast Guard (2002), Address Unknown acts as a companion piece and finds many of Ki-duk’s familiar refrains: little dialogue, taciturn characters, bodily harm (sometimes self-inflicted), military commentary, troubled females. In his director’s commentary on this one Ki-duk states that he hopes that American’s will see the film as evidence of the possibility of American aid in a Korean peace. It’s an interesting comment, given the presentation of Americans in the film.
The various intersecting stories are led by Chang-guk (Dong-kun Yang). The step-son of the violent local dog-meat seller, Chang-guk takes out his aggressions elsewhere, mostly by protecting Jihum (Young-min Kim), a nerdy boy who has a crush on Eunok (Min-jung Ban), a beautiful girl left with one eye after a gun accident in her childhood. Mitch Malem plays the American soldier who seems to be suffering from a stress disorder, falls in love with Eunok, and helps her to get surgery at the American base to fix her eye.
It’s worth noting that this is only about 50% of the cast, but Ki-duk does a fantastic job of connecting the stories through well-placed edits and a camera that frequently moves with one character to reveal another.
Where The Coast Guard was far more concerned with a critique of Korean border patrol, Address Unknown brings America into the mix. Chang-guk’s mother receives letters from an unknown American GI. Chang-guk is frequently mocked as a “half-breed.”
Mitch is violent and sells drugs, but at first he seems innocent enough. Gradually he acts out and his actions soon come close to placing Eunok in peril.
Ki-duk doesn’t really have a great handle on directing American actors. Mitch is over the top in his anti-war aggression. One scene puts him on a basketball court with other soldiers, many of whom spout cliche jingoist idealism in such a frank, non-colloquial English that it’s laughable. Mitch’s response isn’t much better. He plays his character closer to a spoiled 14 year-old than a soldier sickened by violence and angrily wistful for home.
Still, Ki-duk’s style is always his saving grace. Here, as with his other great films – The Isle, Bad Guy, 3-Iron – he pays great attention to sound and shock cuts. The soundtrack of Address Unknown is dominated by brutal, grimy sounds. A dog being beaten with a baseball bat, the yelp of the animal, feet stomping in mud – indeed, much of the soundtrack is intentionally animalistic (the human/dog comparison is too obvious to avoid). Ki-duk does use music, but mostly he wants the caustic sounds of the environment to stand in for the characters’ internal dialogue.
His shock cuts are well-designed. Scenes of intense violence hard-cut to those of calm. A shot of a dog dead to one alive. A tender scene to an arrow flying through the air. The strategy here is to keep the suddenness and unexpectedness of a mostly despondent world pervasive, and also to strike an air of inevitability for each character.
Here’s a clip from the film. Be warned. There’s some fairly disturbing stuff in here. Go to 1:23 to watch the hilariously bad soldier-acting.
But this clip is really worthwhile for a few other moments. 2:38 – 2:45 is representative of the kind of shock cut that is prominent throughout. The cut from the dog alive (with Eunok) in one location to the puddle with blood dropping not only jerks us away from a tender moment, but also foreshadows the animal’s – and perhaps, Eunok’s – fate.
Ki-duk’s compositional style is more recognizable in his other films, but 7:27 is a good example of it here. It’s a wide-shot that he frequently favors: solitary characters, pushed slightly to the side or center-framed, and a really deep depth of field. That depth of field is all over the place in this clip.