Real Fiction Review
As it currently stands, Kim Ki-Duk’s career can be divided into two distinct sections. First off we have the pictures which have earned him his “bad boy of Korean cinema” status, and latterly we have those of a more philosophical bent which he’s produced from Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring onwards. Real Fiction, the latest of his works to receive a UK DVD release, was made in 2001 and thus come before the recent shift in style. As such it’s a decidedly confrontational work – sex, violence and voyeurism are all to the fore – but note the BBFC certificate; rated 15, Real Fiction isn’t quite attaining (if that is the correct term) the extremities of Bad Guy, Address Unknown or The Isle.
Not that the setup would suggest otherwise. The film opens with a young street artist being harassed by local gangsters and humiliated by those who sit for him. Following an encounter with an enigmatic woman carrying a camcorder and her equally mysterious companion, he sets about exorcising his demons via a killing spree which lasts for the film’s duration. In this respect Real Fiction could be viewed as an arthouse slasher flick, yet as is often the case in Kim’s work, it’s been dressed up in allusive packaging.
For this particular venture we find him being overtly experimental. Real Fiction was shot and is almost played out in real time (there are a couple of edits which suggest that this isn’t quite the case) using a pair of DV camcorders as well as ten more conventional 35mm cameras, some of which were fixed in position. Moreover, their presence is often clearly marked (the aforementioned camcorder wielding character) which provides the film with a distinctive Brechtian edge. Indeed, the encounter which serves as the plot trigger occurs in what appears to be a theatrical space and openly flirts with such conventions as monologue and the third wall. And as if that wasn’t abundantly clear, Kim also concludes the film with a shout “Cut!” just to remind us that we are indeed watching a motion picture.
Of course, the use of such devices can never be that simple and as such certain questions arise. Most pertinent is the one with regards to Kim’s intentions. It is often the case with his work that the blankness of his lead characters leads them open to a wide spectrum of interpretation – from utter offence to the detection of a more spiritual nature – and Real Fiction is no different. So is this all just packaging, a means of dressing up exploitation as art? Certainly, the motivations are decidedly sub-Freudian (blame the parents, blame military service) and the whole thing has the ring of autobiographical wish fulfilment – it’s as though Kim is exorcising his demons here, not so much the central character. (Likewise, I’m not entirely sure that the film’s conceptualisation fits the narrative completely. Real Fiction certainly doesn’t cohere in the manner of Hitchcock’s real time thriller Rope, for example.)
And yet, should Real Fiction, given its Brechtian affinities, be judged by its characters motivations? Given the episodic nature and the number of contrivances (the meeting with the girlfriend and the discovery of her infidelity feels more than a little clumsy) it is perhaps best to view the film as a simple construct rather than anything which reflects, or intends to reflect, real life. And yet, other aspects suffer because of the inherent realism which results from such an execution. The various murders, for example, come across as mundane when played out (however discreetly) in the rhythms of real time and to the backdrop of the hum of the filming equipment and everyday ambience. In this respect Real Fiction doesn’t work as a slasher flick as it’s too banal to succeed on this level.
As such we’re left with another Kim’s intriguing frustrations. It’s definitely a minor work in his filmography – the experimental nature allowed its overall production to be comparatively swift – but as one of the least contentious efforts to be found there, it also amounts to one of his best. Indeed, given its contradictions it may survive more repeat viewings in the hope that some may be ironed out over time. Either way, it’s a welcome release, though one which comes cautiously recommended.
Real Fiction arrives on a UK DVD as Region 0 release with a decent if not spectacular presentation. In terms of the picture quality, we get an anamorphic transfer of the original 1.85:1 ratio, though oddly it appears to have been vertically stretched to accommodate a 1.78:1 frame. Given that much of the film was shot digitally, this doesn’t prove to be too major a distraction (it’s only during the long shots when it’s truly noticeable) and otherwise the print is pleasing clean and sharp. There are minor signs of damage, but nothing too overt. As for the soundtrack, we are offered the original Korean soundtrack in either DD2.0 or DD5.1 forms, plus a Cantonese stereo option. Given that the 5.1 offering was the intended mix this is the one to go for, though given the inauspicious nature of Real Fiction’s execution, there is little to separate this from the stereo choice. In both cases, however, the sound is as clean as could be expected under the circumstances. (The attendant English or Cantonese subtitles are optional.) The only major disappointment comes with the extras as these amount solely to the theatrical trailer, plus a handful of promos for other Tai Seng releases.