Review: Castration, Incest and Slapping in Kim Ki-duk’s “Silent Film” ‘Moebius’ (2013)

moebius 2013 kim ki-duk
*Warning: Spoilers, Sex & Sadism Inside*

A young man (Seo Young-ju) witnesses how his father (Jo Jae-hyeon) cheats on his mother (Lee Eun-woo). The mother knows her husband is cheating on her. So she tries to castrate him as he’s sleeping, but he wakes up in time. She decides to castrate her son instead. After that the son approaches his father’s lover (Lee Eun-woo), but he can’t have sex with her (for obvious reasons). Meanwhile his guilt-ridden father researches penis transplant opportunities on the web, as well as alternative ways for him to have an orgasm. There’s a possibility his son might have a working penis again. So the father he decides to evirate himself and donate his sex organ. Unfortunately, the son’s new genitalia only seem to respond to his mother. 

Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (original title: 뫼비우스, which is also Moebius in Korean) confirms the South Korean auteur’s return to form, after a brief period of uncertainty, caused by the accidents on the set of his 2008 film BreathMoebius is also a departure from his more poetic films such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and The Bow. It seems that Kim is back to the a simpler, more raw aesthetic that was characteristic of his earlier works. It is also no coincidence that he should once more team up with his close personal friend Jo Jae-hyeon. Jo starred in his first film Crocodile back in 1996 and the subsequent Wild AnimalsThe Isle, Address Unknown and one of my favorites: Bad Guy.

Kim Ki-duk’s signature silent characters passion to a whole new level with Moebius: Not a single audible word is spoken in the entire film. Aesthetically the auteur decides to take matters in his own hands and do everything himself: Writing, directing, producing, editing and cinematography. While he publicly admitted that he doesn’t care that much how his films look, I must say that I am impressed with his DP skills. It might not be the most gorgeous looking picture, but there is something about his framing of the picture that creates an intimate, but also unsettling atmosphere. It’s as if there’s constantly something wrong or off about it, but you can’t really put your finger on what it is exactly, yet at the same time it makes you uncomfortable.

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The way Kim Ki-duk shoots also enhances the voyeristic aspect and experience of his films. Speaking of shooting: Did you notice that the gun in this film is the same that he built himself in his documentary Arirang, where he bluffs about killing the people who betrayed him (and possibly himself)? I thought that was a nice little touch and again I can’t help but marvel and be astounded by the many abilities of this man. A man who still doesn’t have the respect he deserves in his own country, and just because he never went to film school. That may also be the reason why the Korean Media Rating Board thought they could bully him to re-cut his film. A lot has been said about the violence in Moebius, but knowing how these things work, I’m pretty sure it was the sexually explicit scenes that were the real “problem”.

When all is said and done, Moebius is a violent film. There’s blood and castration and fighting, but it’s not really that graphic, especially when compared to exploitation cinema or horror films these days. The sex scenes on the other hand were fairly explicit, especially when it comes to Korean standards (from what little I know). Also dealing with castration (by a female character), incest and rape can be problematic for certain people. In Kim’s films however it’s never just for entertainment value or fun, although one should not discard those factors as they are equally valid artistically speaking. In a lot of ways Moebius is a cautionary tale. It shows you how infidelity leads to the destruction of a marriage and family.

Of course lust is not a new thematic in Kim’s canon, but in Moebius he uses the physical consequences as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological ones, which of course are also easier to show on-screen. The intense violence serves as a minimal common denominator. It’s immediate, everyone can understand it and it speaks for itself. That’s also why he doesn’t need words. Although I asked myself if the absence of words also meant an absence of God. As equilibrium is reestablished by the end of the film, the son character (they have no names) goes to pray in front of a Buddha statue. What is the filmmaker trying to tell us?

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My interpretation is that if God can be seen as the word (according to the Bible, I don’t know much about buddhist religion), all the amorality in Moebius comes because there are no words. The fact that nobody speaks is more than just about incommunicability in today’s day and age (the only words we see are on the father’s computer screen). Basically, I think Kim is trying to say that we need to get back in touch with our own spirituality and with God. The mother hides the knife to castrate her son underneath a Buddha statue. I think that is very significant to say some people pervert religion to let it say what they want and justify their actions, but they don’t understand the message of peace and hope that lies at the core of most religious teachings.

The castration in the film also brings up issues of masculinity, manhood and emasculation. Is Kim commenting how men today are becoming “pussies”? I’m not sure, it sounds a bit too simplistic and he’s more subtle than that usually, so I’ll have to revisit the film to explore this topic more deeply. In the meantime I can definitely say that while Moebius may seem like a superficial film on the surface, there’s a lot more to be discovered if you’re willing to dig a little bit deeper. Like for example the last shot of the film, which is very enigmatic (mother and father are dead, but the son is smiling).

I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the moebius syndrome which is an extremely rare congenital neurological disorder that causes facial paralysis (and the inability to smile). So by the end of the film the son is liberated or something and he can smile? Who knows. Well, I’m sure Kim knows. I’d love to ask him. Beyond all the beautiful symbolism in his films (which I hope I didn’t butcher too much, with my amateurish deciphering attempts), the film also finds time for some very dark humor. There are some scenes which are indeed quite hilarious, like when a guy’s dick gets run over by cars or when the whole family is fighting on a bed.

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One of Kim’s strongest feats of course is also his directing. Once more the acting in Moebius is superb. I’ve already mentioned his buddy Jo Jae-hyeon, which of course we already knew was great, but newcomer Seo Young-ju, was also quite impressive as the son (it’s only his third feature film). My favorite performance however is the beautiful Lee Eun-woo, the mother and the “girlfriend”. Lee plays two different roles at the same time and does a fantastic job. She is unrecognizable, which is not only a testament to the great hair and makeup, but also her acting skills. One character is totally crazy, jealous and insane (the mother), while the other is sweet, romantic and compassionate (the girlfriend).

In conclusion, I would just like to reiterate how much I loved this film. While I prefer the more romantic and poetic Kim Ki-duk I am happy that he got to do this old school picture and that he got some recognition for it in Italy at the Venice Film Festival (where he had previously won the Golden Lion for his 2012 film Pietà). I am happy that we have a filmmaker like Kim, who’s not afraid to show our innermost instincts no matter how sick and twisted they may be. By the way I also loved the little 3-Iron self-reference he threw in there (the kissing scene à trois). While I admire and applaud his effort to make a “silent film” I hope his next project features a bit of dialogue or spoken words, because he’s great at that too.

8.5 out of 10

9 comments

  1. literaryvittles

    holy shit! that is one heck of a plot! Man, the castration scene in Game of Thrones was too much for me, so I don’t think I could stomach this. Any suggestions for the more timid of us so that we can slowly build up our tolerance? haha

    • davideperretta

      😀 Haven’t seen Game of Thrones, but it’s not that graphic here (or maybe I’m just desensitized).
      I can recommend all of Kim Ki-duk’s films, depends on what you’re looking for. I’d start with 3-Iron, one of my personal favorites, it’s a good indication of his style, but it’s not too violent (and there’s no sex either).

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013 | black is white

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