Kim Ki-young — a legendary filmmaker defined by women

Kim Ki-young [YONHAP]

During her Oscar acceptance speech at this year’s awards ceremony, Youn Yuh-jung offered her thanks to filmmaker Kim Ki-young (1919-1998), who gave Youn her first taste of stardom as a maid called Soon-ja in his 1971 film “Woman of Fire.”

In prior interviews with local press throughout her decades-long career, Youn often described Kim as one of the most eccentric characters she had ever met. His close acquaintances and friends all have similar outlandish memories of the renowned filmmaker, but it is difficult to unify their descriptions.

What is clear from the books about and pictures of Kim is that his presence made an impact. He was more than 180 centimeters (5 feet 9 inches) tall, weighed over 90 kilograms (198.4 pounds), had bushy hair and wore heavy-rimmed glasses. His blank expression made him appear unapproachable.

One of his distinguishable traits was his choice of footwear. He only wore rubber shoes, even to important events such as press screenings and international film festivals. He was extremely frugal in all aspects of his life, except for his films. He would rarely go out for a cup of coffee, let alone enjoy drinks with his acquaintances, but he wasn’t ashamed of his ways. He often admitted that he had no hobbies outside filmmaking, saying that he would rather spend time writing a script or searching for props to use for his films. Kim was truly film-obsessed, spending any spare time he had watching movies.

His non-conformist and eccentric ways kept him from mingling with those in the industry’s mainstream, leading the myths and rumors surrounding him to grow. All of these rumors about him were related to films in some way and most of them turned out to be true as seen in the obituaries written about him in the media after his death in 1998.

Kim lived his life walking a fine line between reality and surrealism, and his directing style was no different. While reviews of his works differ, critics unanimously agree that his films best suit who he was as a person.

The Korea JoongAng Daily compiled and analyzed the career and life of Kim Ki-young, his influences, and what made his works so unique.

**All of quotes from Kim come from the books “24 Years of Conversation: A collection of interviews with the filmmaker Kim Ki-young” (translated) by filmmaker and screenwriter Yoo Ji-hyung and “Imprint of the Legend: Filmmaker Kim Ki-young” (translated) by film critic Lee Yeon-ho.

The women of Kim

Kim created 32 films in total during his 35-year career. After directing three short documentaries, he made his commercial debut through 1955 feature film “Box of Death.” His last film “Be a Wicked Woman” (1990) was first screened in his career retrospective at the 2nd Busan International Film Festival in 1997. The lapse in time was due to the fact that the filmmaker was so disappointed with the outcome of the film that he chose not to release it.

His most iconic, and the work he claims he was proudest of, was his 1960 film “The Housemaid.” The film was based on a real murder case involving a housemaid who had an extramarital affair with her employer and killed his five-year-old son, which Kim read about in the newspapers.

“During that time, all the affluent people had a housemaid in their homes,” Kim said. “And the housemaids were young girls from the countryside. There were only a few factories so they usually found work in pubs or became housemaids.”

Kim explained that these young girls had to endure unfair treatment, and their employers, despite the fact they had hired them to help, felt a sense of displeasure that the young women were invading their personal spaces.

“The Housemaid” is centered on the destruction of a family home as told through the story of a femme fatale housemaid named Myung-sook.

Kim was so happy with the outcome of the film, which was considered to be his first breakthrough work, merging realism into his own style of expressionism and symbolism, that he later remade it not once, but twice.

“Woman of Fire” (1971), which starred Youn as housemaid Myung-ja, and his 1982 film “Woman of Fire ‘82,” complete his official “Housemaid trilogy.”

Two of his later films, “Insect Woman” (1972) and “Beasts of Prey” (1985), can also be deemed as variations on the original “The Housemaid.”

The plots and themes of these five films, and even in some of his other films, are all similar. While some view his consistency as a distinct aspect of the auteur, others have criticized that he was being obstinate and trapped in his own preferences.

“A carpenter builds homes relying on his talent and insight,” Kim remarked. “A carpenter who is talented in handling wood builds a wooden house; one who’s good with bricks builds a brick house. It’s the same with me. Starting with ‘The Housemaid,’ and going through ‘Woman of Fire’ and ‘Insect Woman,’ the films that saw success were those about demon-like femme fatales who, for their own reasonings, destroy domestic peace. What is success? People flock to theaters because the films are well-made. So my calculation is that I’m proficient in this kind of genre.”

As seen from the film titles, the protagonists in Kim’s stories are usually women. The wives are portrayed as holding the upper hand when it comes to the finances in their marriages, as seen in scenes where they count money. The husbands, on the other hand, are often described as childlike, or even useless. In “The Housemaid,” the wife is the primary breadwinner, earning her income from sewing and the family lives in a two-story Western-style home that she purchased. In the other films in the trilogy, the wife characters run chicken farms while their husbands, who work as composers, remain upstairs.

In “Insect Woman” and “Beast,” although the husbands’ social positions are deemed respectable thanks to their occupations as a college professor and an owner of a publishing company, they remain mostly silent and sexually incompetent. The wives, on the other hand, work diligently as an employee at a shipping company and a property developer. In this flipped version of social constructs at that time, a third character is added into the dynamic — the housemaid.

The housemaids, who become the mistresses, are all plagued with issues. They are portrayed as unintelligent, become obsessed with their virginity, or suffer from epileptic seizures brought on by past trauma.

The other female characters — the wives — are also plagued with issues. While they appear “normal,” audiences soon learn that they are trapped within their own ideologies and value systems, making abnormal decisions or committing preposterous acts to preserve their family life.

For example, in “Insect Woman,” the wife buys the mistress a house in a bid to learn more about her husband’s sexual activities. She orders the mistress to report everything about him back to her and drugs him with a sleeping pill so that he can undergo a vasectomy.
In “Beast,” the wife, after finding out about her husband’s affair, lets him continue but only under the condition that he must return home by midnight. The husband is described as a helpless baby, wearing baby clothes and sucking on a nursing bottle.

The housemaids are the monsters in these films — they’re irrational, unpredictable and psychologically unstable — and will go to any lengths to achieve what they want.

“Of course, I think that all women are nice and kind,” Kim said when asked if the murders committed by his female protagonists were linked to his opinions on women. “But that is when they are still single. When men rip their hearts into pieces, they become demons and seek revenge. My wife said that her colleagues were taunting her that ‘your husband is playing with women again’ and advised me that I should never ridicule housewives. When you provoke them, you will be beaten to death, so I’m trying to refrain from that. (laughs) But the truth is, women, when their husbands die, live freely and happily for a good 20 years, but men don’t even last two years after their wives die. Even if they manage to live longer, they are already as good as dead.”

The female characters clash over their differing goals — the wife strives to protect her status while the housemaid desires to climb up the social ladder using her sexuality. The males, over time, become more useless and their indecisive tone remains constant. Superficially, it seems that the housemaid is the cause behind the collapse of the family, but it is implied that the seed to destruction was already planted and growing internally in the households. When the domestic peace that was being maintained is toppled by the housemaid, the familial values that the wives so desperately try to protect all but vanish.

“The classic monster that exists in Korean society did not arise from the Han River as it did in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘The Host,’” according to film critic Lee Yeon-ho in her book “Imprint of the Legend: Filmmaker Kim Ki-young.” “The real monster existed beneath the roofs of people’s homes in Seoul without any of the special effects [of computer generated imagery] and can always infiltrate our daily lives. What creates a monster is the improper normalcy society maintains. When one realizes this, you cannot help but cheer for Kim Ki-young’s strange women.”

The impact of Kim

Many of the maestros that have shaped the local film industry today consider themselves fans of Kim.

Bong Joon-ho has cited Kim on a number of occasions as a filmmaker he respects. Bong even credited “The Housemaid” as a reference for his Oscar-winning “Parasite,” and asked audiences to compare it with Kim’s when they watch the film. The similarities between the two films aren’t difficult to see: They both touch center on social hierarchy and efforts to climb the social ladder, and use stairs to represent characters’ different social positions. Even some of the male characters in “Parasite,” who are financially dependent on their wives and revert back to childlike states, are similar to those in Kim’s films. The scene in “Parasite” where Moon-gwang, the housekeeper, feeds her husband Geun-sae from a bottle almost mirrors a scene from “Beasts,” where the wife feeds her husband from a bottle.

Director, screenwriter and producer Park Chan-wook claims Kim’s “Be a Wicked Woman,” vastly influenced his career. He describes Kim as being “able to find and portray beauty in destruction, and humor in violence and terror.”

Filmmaker Im Sang-soo took the helm of the remake of Kim’s “The Housemaid” and again cast Youn, but this time as the old maid Byeong-sik who knows everything that’s going on in the mansion she works in. Actor Jeon Do-yeon played the housemaid named Eun-yi who disrupts the home of the affluent family.

Youn was not the only actor whose career was impacted by Kim. He discovered numerous rookie actors and cast them in his films, such as Ahn Sung-ki, Kim Ji-mi, Kim Seung-ho, Lee Eun-shim, Park Jung-ja, Sunwoo Yong-yeo and Lee Hwa-si.

“When I first saw Youn, there wasn’t anything particularly beautiful about her,” Kim said during an interview about “Woman of Fire.” “That’s what caught my eye. And I liked her gaze. She saw everything in a tilted way instead of staring directly at it. And there was something pure that was dormant within her that I saw when the whites of her big eyes and they seemed to be frightened. I thought that she would do well and after we started shooting I learned my instinct was right.”

Camera director Jung Il-sung who worked closely with Kim on a number of films described how Kim saw actors.

“When you see a pretty vase, most people find beauty in its symmetry and its curves, but Kim would randomly turn it upside down and feel the bumpy bottom and talk about its manufacturing process. And then he would move the vase from bright lighting and put it in a half-shadow, and explain its beauty when it looks incomplete.”

Youn said in an interview that one of the reasons why she continues to feature in films is as a way to pay off the debt she feels she owes the late filmmaker, who remained in contact with her even after she moved to the United States.

“I think I’d tell him that I’m sorry,” Youn said during an interview with Chosun Ilbo in 2016 when asked what she’d say to Kim if she could see him again. “Back then I didn’t want to sleep in a motel, or stay up late, so I ran away and would throw the makeup case and told [him] that I won’t shoot [the film], so I’m sorry. I would tell him the reason why I continue to do films is because I didn’t shoot any films that you tried so hard to persuade me to do, maybe I feel indebted in my heart [...] Oh no, I don’t know why I’m saying these things. How can I meet Kim Ki-young again?”

The death of Kim

Kim died just as he was being rediscovered by young filmmakers and critics and attracting global interest after the second Busan International Film Festival in 1997 dedicated a special section of its career retrospective to the filmmaker.

After enjoying popularity thanks to “Insect Woman” and “Ieoh Island” (1977), public attention on his films waned in the 80s, and he was neglected by the mainstream until the early 90s.

His output also decreased accordingly, gradually coming to a complete halt by the mid-80s.

After the resurgence in his popularity, Kim told his close acquaintances that he was close to starting the filming for his next film “Diabolical Woman,” and another project was almost set to be in motion soon.

However, in the early morning of Feb. 5, 1998, Kim and his wife, Kim Yoo-bong, were killed in a house fire which is presumed to have been caused by an electrical short circuit. He was 78.