Address Unknown has so many moments of real emotional power that I was tempted to overlook the many other moments when the film stumbles. It’s one of the more recent films by Korean director Ki-duk Kim, a man drawn to strong and disturbing material and who seems determined to make films about such things that are insightful rather than exploitive. When he succeeds, the results are movies like 3-Iron, Samaria, The Isle or Bad Guy; when he falls down, we get Real Fiction or The Coast Guard. Address Unknown is certainly one of his better productions, but it’s pockmarked with a host of little problems that collectively keep it from being a better movie. It is also one of his bleakest and least forgiving films—the only movie of his I found more emotionally battering than this was The Isle, and that’s saying a lot.
The film deals with three young people growing up in a rural slice of the Korean backwoods near an American army base. Everyone in that neighborhood is wretched to some degree, but these three are among the most pitiable: a young girl who lost an eye in a stupid childhood accident (Min-jung Ban); a timid painter’s assistant (Young-min Kim); a half-Korean, half-black (Dong-kun Yang), sired by an American serviceman and then abandoned. None of them have any real connections with other people. The girl’s closest to her dog, has no father (he died in wartime) and loathes the rest of her family. The painter’s a routine target for the local bullies who buy porno from the American servicemen, and the half-breed is shunned by just about everyone save the drunken dog-meat merchant who also happens to be his mother’s current lover.
The three of them never really form any kind of friendship, except for the half-Korean and the painter. They meet after the film has already dwelled on both of them separately, and they attempt to spy on the girl in her bedroom (since the painter lives in the adjoining house)—which turns into black comedy when she stabs at them through their peephole with a pencil. Later on, when the painter injures his own eye with a jury-rigged zip gun, there’s a shot of the three of them ambling along each with a wounded eye—a nice way to tie them together visually when the connections between them are tenuous to begin with. The half-breed’s mother writes ceaselessly to the States to get in touch with the man who sired her son, but they all come back undelivered (hence the title). She’s a local pariah not only for selling herself to an American but ostensibly wanting to go back for more, and the more we see of her the more she realize she has sunk to the level of someone who is seeking any reason to believe she has no choice but to suffer.
The wounded girl’s family problems color a good deal of her reactions to everyone else. Her brother was responsible for ruining her eye (and is callously unrepentant about it), and the only income the family has is from her dead father’s war pension. One day men from the government come, sternly inform the family that her father is alive—a voluntary defector to North Korea—revoke the pension, and tear his medal of honor off the wall as they leave. The only time her brother does anything for her sake is when the local bullies rape and impregnate her, and then he takes out his anger on the wrong person.
Even more morally ambiguous is the American soldier who tries to befriend the girl and maybe do something about her eye—he seems to want to do the right thing, but he’s responsible for running drugs in the base and seems to be about as interested in them as he is in her. “If I didn’t have you and this,” he says at one point, brandishing his cache of LSD, “I’d be crazy by now.” The artist pleads for her not to get an operation at the soldier’s behest, but cannot bring himself to say that he would be able to love her just as she is. Either he is just not that apt, or he has not yet learned to lie as convincingly as the soldier has. Some people have described the film as a diatribe against Americans in Korea—who are certainly not seen in a flattering light, but I doubt the problems of the film are due to them. They just seem to be unhappy witnesses to something that has been going on long before they ever showed up, and aren’t helping much either.
Cruelty to animals as well as people is a way of life in this film, from the way the dog-meat seller sullenly bludgeons his wares with a baseball bat (mercifully not shown on-camera) to how an aging local is determined to test a pistol on a chicken. Korean movies do not usually shy from this sort of thing—Oldboy’s squid, or the sickening scene with the mutilated fish in The Isle—but here, on top of that, it has the power of a metaphor for how the local populace treats itself as well. The only connections available between people are forged through violence, whether it’s the half-breed beating up the bullies who harass the painter, or the local group of embittered war veterans who gather for archery practice as a way of barely sublimating their animosity for each other. Later on, the half-Korean rounds up one of the bullies and eggs his friend on to beat him up: the world they live in hasn’t given them any other way to really connect with each other.
So far I have talked about what does work in the movie, because the movie by and large works enormously well to draw us close to these people and make us care for them. What doesn’t work is a bevy of mistakes, technical and aesthetic, that get in the way and ultimately ruin the film. The opening credits tells us it’s 1970, but there are countless jarring anachronisms—the very 1980s-looking Hustler magazine the local punks pass around, the cellphone card stand that’s prominently featured in one shot, etc. The biggest eyesores are the scenes with the American servicemen: they probably cast real soldiers for these roles, which is laudable, but they’re stiff actors at best and Kim isn’t able to direct them in a convincing way. The soldier who befriends the girl is equally awkward because his performance is so clumsy. It’s hard to tell if he’s being deliberately condescending or is just supposed to be genuinely socially inept. And then there’s the whole business of the girl’s eye surgery, which is handled way too furtively to be credible (although maybe the movie is just playing fast and loose with time here; it’s hard to tell).
The end of the movie is a total mess, and it’s a shame to see any film fall apart as compulsively as this one does. Kim tries far too hard to tie everything together into the same bundle, much the way he did in The Coast Guard, and it comes off as terribly contrived. I was reminded, actually, of another Korean film by a different director—Oasis—which for two-thirds of its running time had greatness within its grasp and then threw it away on an ending so inept and ham-handed that I groaned out loud. Address Unknown is similarly annoying, but the things in it that do work are hard to put completely out of mind.
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