Time is the latest film from Korea’s Ki-duk Kim, he of several genuinely great movies (The Isle and 3-Iron) and a few that aim for something that we can’t even see from here and miss completely (The Coast Guard and Address Unknown). I am not sure if other people will accept Time as completely as I did, since it traffics in the deeper and murkier recesses of people’s ids and makes no apologies for going off the deep end not just once but several times. Then again, this isn’t a movie about rational people, and Kim’s forte is compulsive, obsessive people, so perhaps we can’t demand that the movie be wholly rational either. I’d rather see Kim take chances, as he is wont to do, instead of watching someone else with smaller ambition play it safe.
Time gives us a young, slightly Yuppie-esque Korean couple, Si-hee and Ji-woo. He edits movies on his Macintosh for a film company, and has a passing eye for the ladies. Si-hee (whose job is never defined) burns with jealousy whenever Ji-woo so much as looks at another woman, and the depth of her jealousy is cemented in an early scene where she screams at a couple of women who traded phone numbers with Ji-woo when they hit his car by mistake. She’s disturbed that she should be this obsessive. So’s he, and what sane man wouldn’t be? But the movie does its best to make Si-hee’s obsession tangible, not just a given, and it does this by showing her thinking at work: If I looked like another woman, would he want me all the more?
One day Si-hee vanishes. She’s elected to undergo plastic surgery, disappear for a time until the scars heal, and then reassert herself in Ji-woo’s life. During this time, a puzzled and saddened Ji-woo scratches around for her and comes up empty: he’s not sure if this is his fault, or if this is just the furthest endpoint for her mercurial behavior. He gets drunk with friends, hangs out with other girls. And as he does so, the camera lingers a little longer on the faces of the other girls than it normally might, and we wonder: Are any of these her? A whole succession of women go into and out of his life, and we’re inclined to feel as uneasy about that possibility as he does.
Then one day she does come back into his life, and cheerfully snags his attention. There’s a lightness and a spirit to their relationship that didn’t exist before, but the whole thing is predicated on a lie that can’t be kept corked up forever. Ji-woo finds out before long, and is furious. What he resents most is being deceived, and for reasons that (to him, anyway) have nothing to do with the substance of their relationship. Then he turns around and enacts a kind of revenge of his own, where he has plastic surgery, and Si-hee must then contend with the possibility that one of a number of new men in her life are, in fact him—or may not be.
Many people are not going to forgive the excesses of a film like this. It traffics in melodrama, and strains credulity in more ways than one. I find it hard to believe, for instance, that Si-hee and Ji-woo could come back to the same coffee shop and have as many violent arguments as they do without getting completely banned from the place. The last 15-20 minutes in particular are a shameless mixture of blood and tears and traffic accidents, the sort of thing that wouldn’t work at all unless they’d been preceded by this film. But there are risks that do fit, as in an extended sequence where See-hee walks around in public with a paper mask, one made from a photo of her “old” face. I also liked another scene where she hands her surgeon a collage of eyes, nose and face from fashion magazines as an example of what she wants to look like. And there’s a seaside park of erotic sculptures (no, really) that provides no end of things to point a camera at.
Moments like that point towards what the story’s really about: How we see ourselves is not how others see us, nor is it meant to be. It’s also a meditation on the concept of the body as a suit of clothes that can be tailored to order, and that just because you can arbitrarily remake yourself doesn’t mean other people are going to find the concept as positive as you do. I’m reminded of a friend of my mother’s, one of the most physically unattractive people you could have ever met but irreplaceable as a human being and universally good-hearted. If you’re not comfortable in your skin no matter what that skin looks like, what’s the point?
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