Destructive romance on a higher level
When Jin enters his realm of dreams, an unknown woman acts out his experiences for real in a state of unawareness. Discomforting events increase dramatically when the faiths of these two lost souls become more and more entangled.
I remember seeing Kim Ki-Duk‘s(aka Seom) during its short theatrical run in my country, back in 2001. Simply an amazing film, both beautiful and shocking, that had quite an impact on me (and impressed some of my friends too, for that matter). The following years I read a lot about his other films when they came out. About the different themes Ki-Duk explored and how his style developed with subtle changes. Always intending to at least pick up and watch a few of these films, alas, for some reason, this never happened. But now, after having missed out on his ten previous films, I had the chance to watch his latest, Dream (aka Bi-Mong), and this time I didn’t hesitate.
One night, the introvert artist Jin causes a hit-and-run accident, only to wake up and discover it was just a nightmare. As if he felt it was some strange omen, he decides to jump in his car and drive to the crossroad where the accident occurred in his dream. There he sees it actually did happen. The police has already arrived at the scene of the crime. Convinced he is responsible for the accident, he’s shocked to learn the police already have a culprit, a young woman named Ran. Her car was spotted on a surveillance camera. During questioning however, Ran claims she was at home asleep, that night when the accident happened.
During those first 15 minutes of the movie, a solid mystery is presented. A logical expectation of any viewer might be for it to get more complicated, offering occasional thrills and twists. But basically, it doesn’t. There are a few puzzling surprises, but the mystery itself never fully develops and only a vague, possible explanation is given pretty early on in the movie. Instead, Dream turns into a much more personal, psychological film that toys with logic, at times even dislocating its own time/space framework. All this certainly doesn’t mean Dream results in a worse film than it should have been. On the contrary, it displays originality & authenticity. You just have to be prepared to follow the path Ki-Duk will take you on. And that is one of a descent into personal madness for the protagonist couple Jin and Ran. Mystery and fantasy are merely subtle undertones present throughout the film.
While Ran is at first very reluctant to accept Jin’s help and in denial about her re-occuring state of noctambulism, she’ll soon have to accept that both their faiths are entangled. There’s a strange parallel between them. Jin’s girlfriend recently broke up with him, and he has difficulties getting over it (the night he supposedly caused the accident, he was following her in his car). Ran, on the other hand, just broke up with her unloving and violent boyfriend and is determined to never look back upon their relationship. Now the real problem is, that whenever Jin sleeps, Ran will act out his dreams, unconsciously (while in a state of sleepwalking). The only solution is for them to never fall asleep at the same time again. Suffice to say, they fail to do so enough times to make up for an interesting movie.
What struck me most about Dream, is that in its essence it comes very close the aforementioned The Isle. While I was expecting a very different movie (after having read much about Ki-Duk‘s other efforts), the similarities where striking. The plot knows the same pace (slow but steady) and revolves around an unusual relationship between two characters (male & female) that results in a downward spiral, along the path of self mutilation, murder and ultimately insanity & suicide. While Dream may look a little different (due to its more suburban orientated settings and slightly less picturesque cinematography), the film’s texture doesn’t. There are dreamlike sequences (sometimes confusing, sometimes even scary) throughout the movie and especially the ending should have anyone reminiscing The Isle, as it’s a portrayal of pure visual poetry, and this time even much more emotionally laden. While the film gets darker and more hopeless with every scene, it makes those final minutes all the more stunning. Like suddenly, there’s beauty in the blood-stained purity of sadness. Don’t blame me for these words (it’s irrelevant to reveal the source here); I only added the word “blood-stained”.
I can only say I was deeply impressed with the acting by Jô Odagiri and Na-Yeong Lee, who play Jin and Ran, respectively. In sync with Ki-Duk‘s directing, their performances feel somewhat minimalistic at times (aside from a couple of disturbing outbursts). They don’t talk too much (and in this sense, silence often does speak louder than words), but you can just tell from the start by the way they act (and interact) that both their characters have issues and feel like damaged souls. It’s interesting to know that Odagiri speaks Japanese in the film while Lee speeks her lines in Korean. I wasn’t aware of this, as I speak neither of the two languages. It just sounded like they had different accents. Was Ki-Duk deliberately making a point with this? He might have, as near the end of the movie you get the impression that they have a different level of understanding each other, transcending the spoken word.
The evolution of both characters is also peculiar, to say the least. At first you have the impression that Ran is more unstable than Jin is, but as the film progresses it gets harder to tell who exactly is dragging who down with him. There comes a turning point, however, where they reach a brief state of harmony with mutual love and hope shining through. But in this case, things get better before they get worse. Jin and Ran seem to be trapped in a destructive relationship, and the sad thing about it is that it’s not even their fault. It doesn’t feel like they both have self-destructive personalities (as they’re actually trying to save each other), it’s more like a third, unknown entity forcing them to be together. If they’re supposed to be soulmates, then kudos to Ki-Duk for shattering the myth by showing us that this might not always be a good thing. Or could it be it does pay off in the end…?
Kim Ki-Duk, with only two films already, has proven to me he really is a masterful filmmaker with unique visions. Although with Dream, I sometimes had the impression it’s not a film constructed with his full capacities. There seems to be room for improvement, still. It’s hard to point out where and how exactly, because parts of it are rather abstract and open to interpretation. But that’s just the way Ki-Duk tells his story. You’ll just have to fly with it, as they say. Ki-Duk also isn’t a man of many words, but more one of images and suggestion. I’ve come to learn that this approach often worked to great extent in his other films, but I just felt that a bit more significant dialogues between Jin and Ran could have added more depth to their characters, making them more interesting and perhaps also more understandable. Now we have two psychologically damaged and emotionally scarred characters attracted to each other because of some seriously weird chemistry between them. You sense a certain profoundness to their characters, although you can’t put it into words as it is never explored in the film.
In the end, whether Dream is a flawed film or not, doesn’t really matter. It remains a uniquely intriguing film, with a darkly depressing undertone. Clearly, it’s a thought-provoking piece of cinema which might not be easily accessible to some and compelling to others. At the least, it should get you interested in Ki-Duk‘s other work. As for myself, I have already purchased a boxset with five of the man’s more spiritly themed movies. So I’m good and ready.