Address Unknown Review

In-between 2001 and 2002 director Kim Ki-duk made two films that raised concerns over military power, the latter of which, The Coastguard, stuck to predominantly Korean issues. Address Unknown, meanwhile, looks at the impact of an overbearing American presence.

Set in 1970s South Korea the film takes a look at the lives of people living in a poor village that’s situated on the North Korean border. Post war sentiments run high and many citizens still feel a large threat hanging over their heads, despite the presence of a U.S. military base that promises to provide a safeguard. But the Korean people don’t see this as a positive sign, fearing that American presence is only making matter worse. Three young individuals, each of whom is dealing with their own inner demons, provide the basis for this commentary which examines how lives are easily shattered in a post-war period that struggles to forget the past and cling on to hopes for the future.

Kim Ki-duk is a rare breed of director, who makes films only for his own sake: while he always understands his projects audiences are often left more bewildered and have to piece together his occasionally puzzling works. That has always been a problem when criticising his films; it’s wonderful that he has the opportunity to express himself without studio interference, but – as is often the case – he raises a specific issue, makes a point, but fails to elaborate on why it’s such an important factor. In Address Unknown Kim is addressing the presence of the U.S. military in Korea; it’s with this that he hopes to open the eyes of Americans, who will see the film in their country and hopefully understand the increasing difficulties and severity of such stationing. Granted, we see U.S. soldiers at work, and we’re introduced to one of the film’s main cogs in the form of a military figure, but there’s no reasoning behind him. We know that the U.S. encroaching on Korean soil is meant to be somewhat worrying; that they can promise to do advantageous things and that the American soldiers aren’t in a happy place themselves - but why is this? There’s no real educational factor at play. Kim offers little more than shots of soldiers doing routine training exercises, while the best he can muster for the central American figure is to throw in a sub plot about drugs and have the character break down under the increasing pressure of being stationed away from home; the latter only being signified when he calls out his mother’s name toward the end of the film. Aside from this the director doesn’t get into any specifics, which is strange considering he wants people to truly understand what’s going on. With an important history and one set during a time when Korea was harbouring high anti-American sentiments, there’s some good opportunities for Kim to exploit, but he chooses to simply say that it’s happening and solely relies on several metaphorical devices that, even when made clear by the director, do very little to change overall opinions.

Similarly, though more understandable, Kim looks at the treatment of war veterans who have faced many injustices since their fighting days and he uses Korean soil for his argument a little better than the aforementioned nation. Likewise the key characters, three of whom are of a much younger generation, prove to be instrumental in carrying the film. Equally these people go through turbulent times and changes, in which Kim strikes up several metaphors in order to establish his intent. While these are often ambiguous affairs: dog beatings and Eun-ok symbolising a picked upon country in torment, the violence breeds violence attitude and the people at the heart of it are well realised. The frustration of disability, sex, innocence and racial discrimination all play important roles whereby Kim once again uses them at his disposal to get a message across; something that he’s managed to bridge between most of his films and in this case reiterating that things in the world haven’t changed all that much. And indeed those behind the roles of his central Korean cast perform admirably, certainly far better than the problematic America actors who are largely vapid and amateurish and gain absolutely zero sympathy from the viewer. While I don’t expect Kim to find far more skilled actors it’s still a concern when he’s trying to touch upon reality by using those whose performances are about as convincing as when Gene Wilder tried to pose as a black man in Silver Streak. I have to wonder though that given the amount of extras, if Kim actually managed to get real soldiers to participate. When coupled with the less than forthcoming U.S. commentary the experience is all the more numbing - and for the wrong reason.

Let it not be said that Kim doesn’t have a great eye for detail, however. It’s always amazed me how - at the age of 36 - the artist and self-taught film maker broke onto the scene with so very little experience, only to demonstrate a visual understanding that many directors working today would die for. Address Unknown may well have its faults and if we’re to embrace its powerful elements then it’s certainly through the way in which he crafts each and every scene. His movies often have that silent era quality and in several instances here we can understand in the simplest and purest forms where each of his characters are coming from and how their surrounding environments play huge roles. Again, as with other productions, his compositions, lingering silences and visceral flourishes bare far greater impact than any of his scripts have delivered to date, but then it could be easily argued that Kim never relies on a script to tell his story. Address Unknown indeed has a poetic quality that’s filled with a never-ending amount of tragedy, some of which contains very dark humour and it’s thanks to such bravado behind the lens that it’s all the more easy to appreciate and accept.


Tartan presents Address Unknown on DVD for the first in the UK.


Readers of my reviews know that I always provide screen captures. Unfortunately I couldn’t run this disc properly on my pc; beyond the main menu the film was refused and so, on a rare occasion, I’m afraid there’s no chance. I was also going to do a full visual comparison between this and the Atlantis Korean DVD. That is also out of the question, but having checked anyway it would have been a tad redundant to provide one, due to the fact that the Atlantis edition is an older release which presents the film in full screen, which is bizarrely vertically stretched. I will still mention differences though where appropriate.

Tartan’s presentation runs for one hour and fifty nine minutes, which matches the Korean cut and so we’re looking at another NTSC-PAL conversion. The image is by no means perfect and it leaves me to question where Tartan sourced this from - presumably an older, Korean theatrical print. First of all the spoken English, of which there’s a fair amount, comes with forced Korean subtitles; checking the Korean DVD there is no such problem, with all subtitles computer generated and removable. There’s also a little contrast boosting and slight cropping to the right of frame, along with a little aliasing and edge enhancement which also manages to filter out some natural grain. Colours are generally pleasing, though slightly washed out. While Address Unknown does have a saturated look the Korean disc does have a little more colour to it. In all this is watchable but relatively poor.

Our sound options are Korean DD2.0, 5.1 Surround and DTS. A nice selection indeed, but not one that offers anything particularly outstanding. I would personally recommend the 2.0 option because the latter tracks do nothing to flesh out the surrounds and end up pronouncing moments of hissing. Dialogue and effects come across fine on the standard audio track.

Optional English subtitles are included and they read well, although there is a problem regarding the English spoken portions of the film which has been discussed above. It’s one of those things that proves to be detrimental when scoring both video and audio in this case.


The bonus features here are skimped to the max, but at the very least they’re interesting contributions from Kim Ki-duk, who recorded these for the film’s U.S. distribution. The first is an introduction from the director which is little over thirty seconds in length. This is followed by a very short interview of no more than four minutes in which Kim discusses several metaphors and explains his need to make the film and have American viewers understand how important it is. A Tartan trailer reel rounds off the disc with previews for Infection, Dumplings, Premonition, Lady Vengeance and A Bittersweet Life.


It’s all too easy to be cynical when it comes to Kim Ki-duk’s films; there’s always something to be revealed if you look deep enough, and many times he gets it right. Sometimes though he doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. As with most of his films his passion for his chosen subjects resonates more than anything else and we know that we’re witnessing a genuinely sincere director at work. The trouble with Address Unknown, despite being a wonderfully shot film, is that it lacks the very factor that’s meant to generate a heightened response; only at times does it succeed in hitting the viewer hard, thanks to its compelling human interactions, but Kim’s points concerning America and Korea living under the same sky, while valid, are too vague to allow anyone to understand the director’s exact intentions.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:01:36

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