Readers Write In #314: Kim Ki-duk’s Kerala connection is one of the strangest things Indian cinema has witnessed

Posted on December 16, 2020

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(by Alex John)

Something unprecedented happened at the IFFK in 2013, which was held in the capital city of Kerala. An art movie maker who was largely obscure in his own country got literally stunned by the movie-star welcome the crowd gave him; to an extent that he said it was the most memorable experience in his life. A woman reportedly kissed him in public, a deed that could raise so many eye-brows in an absolutely PDA-hating place, but was unusually turned a blind-eye towards. People waited in serpentine queues for the tickets for his movies under the scorching sun, just as they would for a Mohanlal film.Or a Mammootty film for that matter. He was so beloved at the time that he made so many friends in Kerala, and was even said to be contemplating acting in a Malayalam film (revealed by the director after Kim Ki-duk’s death, as I learn it). How did this happen? How did a sleepy southern state in India fall in love with a Korean filmmaker who made incredibly violent movies? Well, let me see if a bullet point analysis I do as a Malayali brings up some credible answers to this question.

The innate love Keralites have for parallel cinema.

It is often almost an accusation that even mainstream Malayalam films feel like art movies (one of my Chennai friends told me he hated Lucifer for being too…artsy!). Unsurprisingly, a lot of Malayalam art-house films in the 1908s, which are still considered great, drew good-to-great numbers of crowds to cinemas. Although that era, considered the golden age of Malayalam cinema, has come to an end, films from Kerala generally retain that art-house essence to this date. No mistakes here, Kerala is no less crazy for cinematic absurdities than any other place in India; we own a proportionate share of the Indian movie pulp, we drool over movie stars just because they are movie stars, but the desire to make ‘good cinema’ has always been in the air. That is why Malayalam mainstream cinema makes movies on Alzheimer’s disease, domestic refugees, economic immigrants, returning immigrants, labor unions, pandemics, trans-genders, moral policing communism, capitalism, and what not, and turn most of those movies into decent grossers or better. So, when we see a Kim Ki-duk film about an ultra-violent relationship, a dangerous mother brutalizing her son, or a dangerous son brutalizing his mother, we are not taken aback, but we see if we get something from those films that can satisfy our offbeat sensibilities. I want to make this clear, I am not talking about every film-goer in Kerala; just stating that the general lack of repulsion towards unconventional cinema in the state has become one of the many factors that helped an uncompromising foreign filmmaker like Kim to become a well-known figure among its public. Kim offered us a world of dry emotions and bone-chilling terror, and we accepted it with great pleasure, and it is something we should take pride in.

pieta

The multifaceted, hypocritical life of an average Malayali relates easily to Kim’s characters.

Alright, from virtues to vices. A typical Keralite is multi-faced on different levels. We think we are progressive but our rigid morals put Victorian era to shame, we think we are generally inclined to the left side of the political layout but capitalist money flows into the state ceaselessly, we boast of having a socialist infrastructure but economic disparities are aplenty and while Kerala is at par with some of the European countries in terms of HDI, it is a place that people leave and never come back to (except if you’re going to the gulf).Everything seems fine on the surface, but there definitely is a subterranean current of anger, anxiety, frustration, fear and homesickness. Kim Ki-duk’s films that Keralites first fell in love with dealt with tumultuous undercurrents beneath seemingly perfect circumstances; like the covetousness bottled in a heavenly place in the hypnotic ‘spring summer fall winter and spring’, or the dread and desires buried under the slick ‘3-iron’. Movies like Pieta and Bad guy are also stories of inwardness with muffled screams trapped inside. The secluded, mysterious characters in Kim’s films must’ve stricken a chord with his fans in Kerala (definitely did with me). Keralites, like his audiences in many other places, have grown wary of his films as they started to be violent with a vengeance, but the mythical halo around him never jaded. He is still as popular as he was 10 years ago, and his deeply conflicted characters are remembered by us for their distinctiveness as well as their flaws.

Our moral stringency had a way out in Kim’s movies.

Consider this a spin-off of the previous point. Kerala is often regarded as an anomaly among the other Indian states for its literacy and living standards, but its moral values are so unforgiving one would think the state still reports to the queen. Sexuality is supposed to be so hidden that even a stroll with your lover could raise eyebrows. Believe it or not, a lot of people visited festival halls in Kerala in the earlier days hoping to relish a few weird sexual scenes in the films those usually don’t go through censor board scrutiny. Now that the general perception about sex and cinema has changed and you have all kind of weirdness at your fingertips, our movie fests are more or less left with the kind of people who love and appreciate good offbeat cinema. But think about the irony; a noted filmmaker started getting the attention he deserved because of the perversions of a crowd with rigid moral backgrounds, which eventually turned into genuine love and appreciation over the course of time. Kerala still has that Victorian moral structure, which is largely unscathed by the Iranian and African films that dominate our parallel movie-world (they mostly ask questions, excellent ones in that), but Kim Ki-duk opened up a new pavement of cinema that first allured us, then hit us hard with a ton of emotions. I am not ashamed to say this, this story of Korean connection more or less started from us looking for something to jolt our feelings. But, what do they say, all is well that ends up well, right?

Kerala’s leftist vanity

There was a joke back in the 1990s that the moment a member of the Congress party (the then right- wing party) from Kerala leaves the borders of the state, he/she becomes a leftist. There is a tinge of leftism in every Malayali, no matter which political belief you’re a part of. This is a state where you can be a fan of Noam Chomsky without reading a single line written by him, or listening to anything he ever said. You object to the deeds of the USA, and you have a fan base here. Leftism came here as an ideology, but gradually transformed itself into a way of life in the state. Hypocrisies galore, but the political left’s grip on Kerala’s socio-political spectrum hasn’t loosened much. Now, Kim Ki-duk wasn’t really outspoken about his politics, but his films’ presence in the film festivals in Kerala and his regular association with hard core political-left activists during his days in Kerala has left a very obvious political impression in the public (The director of the film he reportedly was considering acting in was one of them), and we added his name to that revered list of leftist icons including, but not limited to Marquez, Maradona, Chavez and Chomski. Even the turbulent #metoo accusations don’t seem to have an impact on his aura, considering how profoundly he is mourned in the state (try googling “Kim Ki-duk and “Kerala”, and you’ll have a fairly good idea about this).

Our craziness about film-festivals acted as a conduit between us and the Korean filmmaker

Over the last few decades, Kerala has done a good job of turning its film festivals, big or small, into sort of fraternity movements. Although dominated by left-wingers and activists, all sorts of public gather around watch the wide variety of films these fests offer, regardless of political inclinations. It was not surprising to see long queues outside the festival halls before the pandemic struck, and the crowds were often no lesser in size than your average star-film crowds. Weirder films attracted more crowds (sometimes for the sexual contents in them, like I wrote before) and Kim’s films started drawing wild attraction from the mid-2000s in the IFFK, the biggest film festival of Kerala. Of course, bizarreness was the selling point at first, but then the unflinching quality of his films and the politics started getting noticed. It grew into a frenzy in no time, and he started getting superstar treatment, something he could never even dream of if he hadn’t come to Kerala. There is an inside joke about this which says about a board hanging out of Kim’s house in Korea that says ‘Beena Paul (one of the principal coordinators of the IFFK), the savior of this house’. This is rough translation, but it speaks volumes about how strong the ties were between the Korean filmmaker and the beloved state of Kerala. His clout was so strong that he appealed to the government of Kerala to reconsider its decision to cancel the 2018 IFFK due to that year’s devastating floods, and the government granted it. Others may or may not, but I am sure those who frequent the film festivals in Kerala are going to miss him terribly.

Kim Ki-duk was a truly great filmmaker. It makes me sad thinking about how he was almost neglected in his homeland, owing to the reason that his films didn’t truly represent Korean culture. Agreed, his films are a far cry from being commercial showpieces, but a bold and incredibly aesthetic filmmaker like Kim deserved better than being limited to movie festivals. His films aren’t viewed as much as they should be, let alone being discussed enough. It didn’t really help that he started making films in the beginning of  the shallow CGI era and worked throughout that period. Think about how different it would have been if his films came out in the 1970s, especially how they would have been received by young people. And It makes me sadder thinking how Malayalam cinema would have benefitted by his direct association with our films if he had lived longer. The international attention it would have gotten had he acted in that film. Sad, but not surprising when we think how this year has treated all of us. He will be remembered as long as there are people who love brazen filmmaking, and his connection with a far-flung state in India will remain a pleasantly strange memory in the hearts of the movie-lovers of the state. RIP Kim!