by Ben Diamond
It’s a rainy evening at the ICA, I’m fairly wired on a strong cup of coffee and on the screen in front of me there’s a nob on the floor, blood everywhere, and everyone is screaming. Essentially a stereotypical end to Friday night dinner at my parents’, except with more nobs on the floor, and more blood. But slightly less screaming.
I’m sure there are lots of lovely films coming out of South Korea that we could do with watching, but only the most extreme seem to filter down to our small island. Perhaps those are the only ones that catch my attention, but that’s the way it seems to be. Perhaps this tells us something about our own cravings for watching depraved behaviour on the big screen. Regardless, when they do arrive, they usually screen for a pitiful few days at a handful of cinemas and then disappear into the ether again.
Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013, 89m) is certainly extreme. If this were a Friday night cinema audience, there would’ve been walk-outs. Luckily I sat with a tolerant crowd who chuckled through the most shocking bits. Whether this was to lighten the mood and make things bearable, or because there are dark echoes of comedy in the most ridiculous moments of the film is unclear. But what is clear is that Moebius is not extreme for the sake of being extreme. It has something to say. Albeit not with words.
As if this film wasn’t enough of a hard-sell already, it has no dialogue. Shouts, screams, gasps, moans and the odd chuckle – yes. But if you were after some sort of Korean version of a Mike Leigh film (with more castration), you just just jog right on, squire. The film kicks off with a mother trying to castrate her cheating husband, who reacts fairly badly to the whole proposition, naturally, and basically doesn’t let her do it, so she saunters on to her son’s room and de-nobs him instead. Obviously. When knives are being wielded and (dis)honourable members are being threatened, it becomes clear that there’s actually hardly need for any dialogue at all. You just fight for your life and try to hold on to your meat and two veg.
From there, Moebius re-configures and re-visits various key scenes which are established early on, mainly consisting of either masturbation or rape, or in some cases both, but with the sliding scale of consent for both parties artfully set askew each time, and with various different people taking the part of each role. In essence, it’s a fascinating look at the extremes in perverse sexual gratification we have been driven to (well, I can only speak of my own depravity, but if your internet history is anything like mine you should be ashamed of yourself). It’s simultaneously a satire of extreme pornography and a (semi-sympathetic) exploration of how, and on what, we ‘get off’ these days. A memberless father, for instance, works out a way of masturbation whereby he can achieve orgasm by roughly rubbing a stone against his foot until he starts to bleed. This pain-pleasure principle then evolves into one of the most shocking practices of the film, whereby a woman stabs a knife into the shoulder blade of various (willing) men, and proceeds to wiggle it about in the wound, the face of the male nestling on her shoulder, contorted in a rictus of agony and ecstasy.
In all the scenes of sexual activity, of which there are many, consent is never achieved. Which is not to say that the person on the receiving end of someone else’s blunt sexual desire doesn’t ever appear to be getting off on the act themselves. Instead, there is a by turns fascinating and uncomfortable dynamic where opposite poles of sexual desire send everyone spinning like repelling magnets. Sometimes even a person sans genitals attempts to engage in sexual violence. Does this count as sexual violence?, the film seems to ask. Well, it certainly felt like it.
At one point the son in the film is at his desk reading a comic. Maybe it’s a manga comic, containing depictions of extreme fantasies. Maybe it’s just a regular comic. Tellingly, the father comes in and the boy stands up. They look at each other for a moment; a pregnant pause. It’s as if there are empty speech bubbles hanging above their heads. Everything to say, yet they are unable or unwilling to say it with words. The film mirrors the comic-book format in many ways, often lingering in close-up on a face after an ‘action’ scene, similar to a speech-less tile in a graphic novel, the face alone describing the emotions within. As the film fizzed along, the madness made more, rather than less, sense, even as things got progressively weirder. I bought into the manifesto. I left the ICA with a slightly tender shoulder and a renewed gratitude for the continuing presence of my genitals, and their attachment to my body.