Real Fiction is an amateurish and pretentious waste of eighty minutes from a director who has since gone on to produce much better things. The director in question is Ki-duk Kim, he of The Isle, 3-Iron and Samaria, three films I admired and enjoyed — although sometimes I admired them far more than I could say I enjoyed them. I neither admired nor enjoyed Real Fiction, mostly because I could see right through it every step of the way. It’s the kind of movie every director is probably obliged to make once when they’re in film school, just to get it out of the way and get it over with, but there’s no reason we have to watch, too.
Real Fiction opens in a public park, where a hapless sketch artist is suffering one indignity after another at the hands of an uncaring public. Local thugs hassle him for money. His customers belittle his work. No one seems to give a damn. For fun he listens in on other people’s phone conversations through a police scanner (shades of the equally dreadful Focus). I could probably stick my neck out and make some connection, however tentative, between the artist character and the director, because the movie is too shallow to invite any other interpretation.
The only person who shows pity on him is a woman with a camcorder who’s been taping him during his travails. She invites him to come along, and leads him into an empty theater where a deranged actor rages at him and invites him to go and take revenge on everyone who’s ever wronged him. Later, a customer sullenly poses for him, then tears up her portrait when he’s not looking. This for him is the last straw, and he stalks her into a public toilet and stabs her to death in a stall with the knife he uses to sharpen his pencils.
The rest of the movie is no less ridiculous and pointless, even if it is mercifully short (although it sure doesn’t feel short). The artist continues on his rampage — clubbing a photographer to death with an ashtray, slaughtering his ex-girlfriend and her lover in a flower shop, etc. For a director who’s handled touchy or taboo subject matter in the past and made it work, these scenes are an embarrassment, and I squirmed in distaste watching them unfold. They’re also directed and acted with no discernible grace or talent; anyone could have been in these scenes, and anyone could have filmed them. That’s the most depressing part, especially since all of Kim’s other movies have such a strong guiding hand behind them.
After some egging-on by his frustrated alter ego, the artist goes on a killing
spree that's as repugnant as it is nonsensical.
Now, anyone who has half a brain will have figured out by now that the girl with the camcorder, the actor, and yes, the rampage itself are all figments of his imagination. Once you have that figured out, there’s no reason to bother with the details except wallowing in cheap shock: one hapless character gets his head sealed in a bag with a bunch of snakes, and a butcher gets shoved into a freezer (in a scene that is rather annoyingly foreshadowed to boot). The end of the movie follows this algebra through to the bitter end, although the audience’s interest will wane long before that.
The only reasons to be interested in Real Fiction are technical ones. The entire film was shot in something like three hours, almost entirely in real time, using a plethora of cameras (35mm and consumer DV) scattered around Seoul. Unfortunately, this means the performances all have a flat first-take quality, and there was really no overriding aesthetic reason to make the movie in this fashion. Russian Ark was filmed all in one single unbroken take, but had reasons for being enthralling and enjoyable entirely aside from that. The shooting process behind Real Fiction isn’t even something most people are going to be able to discern from the movie’s surface, and those who do know are scarcely going to care.
I should point out that I do not have a standing prejudice against violent or transgressive films. I admired Salò, Irreversible, In the Realm of the Senses, and many other films that used ugly or disturbing subject matter to rattle the audience’s eyeteeth. But all of those films — including Kim’s own The Isle, while we’re at it — had more in mind than simply bludgeoning the audience with vile imagery. Real Fiction’s main problem is not that it is violent or shocking, but that it hasn’t got a single real idea in its sullen, empty head.