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Bad Guy [DVD] 
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Controversial film by Korean director Kim Ki-duk about the twisted relationship between a college student-turned-prostitute and her mute gangland pimp. When Han-ki (Jo Jae-Hyeon), the silent but brutally violent leader of a gang in Seoul's red light district, glimpses a pretty young student, Sun-hwa (Seo Won), in a crowd, he becomes instantly obsessed with her and kisses her without asking her permission in front of her boyfriend. Completely unapologetic, he is beaten by the police for the assault, but this doesn't stop him stalking her on a shopping trip with her boyfriend. When Sun-hwa gets caught stealing, Han-ki seizes his opportunity to force her into prostiitution. He watches through a one-way mirror as she suffers excrutiating cruelty and abuse from a string of brutal clients, and the film charts her decline into humiliation, degradation and ultimate ruin. Whether the film depicts a poignant, twisted love between the two very damaged central characters, or an outrageously offensive glamourisation of gratuitous torture and abuse, is an ongoing debate among feminists and critics.
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This movie basically has two parts, the breakdown of Sun-Hwa and the reconstruction of Sun-Hwa. The first half of the movie moves along at a fairly good pace. The characters are interesting and the story unfolds nicely and is punctuated by sporadic moments of violence and unpleasant bouts of non-consensual sex. The second half of the movie is decidedly slower and a little less believable. It's hard to believe that Sun-Hwa would fall for Han-Ki even after he turns her into a prostitute and watches her from behind a two-way mirror. The film quality of this movie is your Asian fare. It's not as crisp as a Hollywood movie does it does have a little more grime to it.
The acting in this film is fair. Je-Hyun Cho gives a quality performance as Han-Ki. Han-Ki is basically a mute throughout the movie, but Cho provides the character with dialogue through his physical performance and the intense looks that he provides. Half the fun of the movie for me was trying to figure out what Han-Ki is thinking from the behavior and looks that he gives. It's fun for some people, but annoying for others. Seo Won hands in a truly mind-boggling and emotional performance. Won does a talented job of showing the range of emotions that an ex-college student would go through when reduced to the level of prostitution. The scenes with her first cleint are truly disturbing and will have you squirming in your seat, unless you like that sort of thing. I was amazed at the ability of the filmmakers and actors to actually create a sense of sympathy and even a feeling of warmness for the prostitutes and the pimps, especially for Han-Ki. Despite the fact that Han-Ki basically enslaved Sun-Hwa, I still found myself kind of liking the guy. He is more than a pimp; he is a hard but loving father figure for his dysfunctional family of whores and pimps.
Overall, the viewer is asked to be a voyeur and is then told he must be as sick as the sexual predator to view this. Well you be the judge. Kim Ki-Duk's usual mix of violent and lyrical images fails to generate the proper energy he desired to show how relationships work out of biting tensions.
Unlike the animal cruelty and fish hook fetishism exhibited in The Isle, Bad Guy's principal talking point lies in the changing relationship between an unwilling whore and her abductors. Bad Guy's victim is 'hooked' against her will just as securely as are the fish in The Isle. Inveigled into prostitution after a tough guy develops a romantic fixation on her in the street, she gradually comes to accept her new condition in life, the advances of her captor and even grows to 'like' being in the arms of her customers. I use inverted commas for this word as the idea that a woman can gradually enjoy her forced acquiescence into moral degradation, and enter into a voluntary relationship with a tormentor, is debatable to say the least.
There's a scene in the film which neatly describes the dilemma. The thug spends his first night with his love, an unconsummated encounter after which she sleeps on the floor beside him. She has been intimidated, then reassured, he ardent yet constrained by his feelings. First thing next morning he rises, studies her room, and spends a moment on straightening a nail in her wall. Through his one way mirror set in the wall, he has previously seen her at her most pathetic trying, unsuccessfully, to hang up a garment. Clearly this brief DIY is a moment of loving thought, out of place in any black and white view of their peculiar relationship. In fact Bad Guy is full of moments of tenderness, aided greatly by the plaintive melody of the score and the intense chemistry between the two leads. One superbly staged scene is where the two kiss through the one-way glass, she unaware of his secret response to her longing, at least until his lighter flame belatedly flickers his visage into view later. Another is as she resignedly dons a trashy wig and applies thick lipstick. He looks on again in secret, aghast at her depression, unable ' or unwilling - to interfere. Far from being a vicious peeping tom, by this stage he is practically a protector, transfixed by an obsession, as a couple of times he even dashes in to rescue her from unwanted advances. Fresh from a brutal world, the mute is not violent to his ward, nor does he rape her, and by the end of the film his possession is less physical than it is emotional. Add to this on the one occasion he speaks the sudden sound of his high pitched voice, (vocal chords presumably damaged by a conspicuous throat injury) so aptly suggestive of a eunuch's speech, and the nature of his character can be seen quite differently.
Outside of this central relationship, one might nit-pick at less than satisfactory plot points. How the thug recovers so abruptly from life-threatening wounds for instance, or his spell in prison, during which legal processes seems to take no time at all (by reference to an extended fantasy is the usual answer, an occurrence which further undermines the allegations of misogyny). Or the girl's prompt location of the missing parts of the photograph, itself symbolic of her fractured relationships, beneath a considerable expanse of anonymous sand at the beach, and so on. (Ki-duk Kim's use of the shore line as an emotional 'no-man's zone' incidentally reminds one of the importance of such moments in Takeshi Kitano's oeuvre.) The overall impression however is of quite an achievement, and one which is perhaps more mature about the unpredictable nature of love and attraction than the director has been earlier. In short, Bad Guy is no bad film, and despite some misgivings about the moral premise of the piece, one well worth seeing.
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