Kaiju Shakedown: Kim Ki-young
They called him Mr. Monster. From 1955 to 1990, Kim Ki-young was the lunatic in the attic of Korean cinema, a former newsreel propagandist who went on to write, direct, edit, and art direct deranged movies full of gothic lunacy which were funded by his wife’s dental practice. A lover of meat (he would often lock the door of his room on set and grill mountains of animal flesh just for himself) he made 32 movies, eight of which remain lost today, having apparently been turned into hats. His most famous film is The Housemaid (60), which tells the story of an evil maid who destroys a family. Criterion-approved, it’s widely considered one of the great Korean films of all time, and Kim apparently loved it too, revising its story for Woman of Fire (71) and Woman of Fire ’82 (82). Excess is the key to his filmography, but despite containing gems like Iodo (77) about murder on an island ruled by women, and Carnivore (84) about a family obsessed with the patriarch’s impotence, one movie looms over them all, a staggering monument of weirdness: A Woman After a Killer Butterfly (78).
Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, which has a YouTube channel that currently showcases 98 restored Korean classics with English subtitles, anyone can put their brain in a blender and enjoy Killer Butterfly for free. Nam Koong won stars as Kim Young-gul, a miserable student stumbling through three scenarios, each one more insane than the last. In the first, he heads to the country with some buddies to catch butterflies. There he meets cute with a young woman who's waiting for her friend. She tells him, “People’s deaths are just as trivial as a butterfly’s death. Want some juice?” He accepts, and after chugging it down she asks, “Is death really noble? The juice is poisoned. I don’t want to die alone.” He’s miffed, but she’s delighted. “We’ll be going to heaven together!” she crows before keeling over dead, sending him running through the field screaming, “I’m dying!” before collapsing, and waking up in a hospital where a cop informs him that not only has he been cleared of the murder, but he can have the butterfly necklace the woman who tried to poison him was wearing when she died, because who wouldn't want a souvenir? For those keeping count, the movie is just past its five minute mark.
Young-gul stomps home to his shack and decides to hang himself because, you know, life has no meaning. An itinerant bookseller pops up offering to sell him a book proving that if you have enough willpower you can never die. “Get out of here. I hate books!” Young-gul yells, then promptly kills the bookseller. “Damn,” he mutters. “I had to kill someone before I killed myself.” He buries the bookseller, but true to his claim, the guy keeps coming back from the dead, eventually returning as a spooky blue-lit skeleton who repeatedly smacks Young-gul in the head, cackling about his superior willpower.
Speaking of skeletons, the bookseller eventually crumbles into dust and Young-gul runs into a buddy who takes him spelunking to steal the skeleton of a 2,000 year old woman from a cave. If Young-gul can reassemble the pieces, his friend promises, maybe the famous Dr. Lee will hire him as an assistant. A big fan of puzzles, Young-gul puts her back together and the skeleton is reborn as a slinky naked chick who really, really, really wants to eat his liver. It’s a rocky relationship because every time she lapses into silence he has a pretty good idea of what she’s thinking.
“Are you thinking about eating my liver again?” he asks.
“I’m starving…” she whines.
“Are all girls like this?” he growls.
“Give me a break,” she says. “It’s been 2,000 years.”
“Ugh,” he rolls his eyes. “Girls come with so much baggage.”
Eventually he returns home with a rice cracker machine that shoots fresh, hot rice crackers across his shack in a puff of smoke. “We might need the extra money,” he explains. Then she explains how she needs to eat his liver NOW. Convinced, he lies back and she takes a knife, but then decides she likes him too much and, as rice crackers fly across the room and form a warm, starchy mattress, they make love, after which she crumbles into a skeleton. Not one to miss an opportunity, Young-gul takes her bones to Dr. Lee and gets hired as his assistant.
That would be a happy ending, except for the fact that Dr. Lee’s daughter, Kyungmi, is the “friend” suicide girl was waiting for at the beginning of the film. “My poor friend died alone,” Kyungmi sighs. “I don’t want her to be alone in heaven.”
“Your friend’s burning in hell for trying to kill me,” Young-gul responds with his typical charm.
Kyungmi really wants Young-gul to kill himself, but he refuses, which drives her nuts. Meanwhile, Dr. Lee is getting anonymous fresh skulls in the mail. He loves nothing more than measuring skulls to prove that Koreans are descended from the Mongols (“Not me, I’m no half-breed spawn of Genghis Khan,” Young-gul spits) but Young-gul thinks there may be some shady business going on. Shady business like a man dressed as a giant butterfly stealing fresh corpses? Probably.
Young-gul begins to feel that maybe he’s losing his marbles. “I’m not crazy, but I guess crazy people would think that,” he admits. Suddenly, Kyungmi gets a cancer diagnosis and her dad decides that the best remedy is for her to get laid, so he sends her and Young-gul camping with strong young people. That night in their tent, surrounded by the sounds of all the other teen couples having sex, Young-gul tries to rape her. “Don’t even think about it,” she warns, before begging him to kill himself so she’ll have the courage to die. “Let me think about this…” he mutters before she slaps him across the face
“Dad, it was fun,” Kyungmi says, returning home, head bowed, arms hanging limply by her sides, voice dead. She zombie-walks upstairs to her room and Dr. Lee corners Young-gul, “Did you guys do it?” Dr. Lee asks. When he gets a “no” he goes berserk. “Why don’t you just cut it off?” he howls at Young-gul, who only had one job. “Screw this!” Young-gul shouts and takes off to meet up with his buddy in a bar. “Enough talk about death!” he cries. “Let’s drink!” Yeah, yeah, his buddy says, then slips him a mickey in his beer and drags his unconscious body to the giant butterfly man who promptly saws off his head and mails it to Kyungmi in a box tied up with pink ribbon.
That’s not even the end of the movie, but you get the picture: batshit insane doesn’t even begin to cover it. One part David Lynch, one part John Waters, Kim shot this movie fast and cheap to fill the quota for local productions, so no one cared what he did as long as he turned out something resembling a movie. With his characters tucked into the corners of the frame, shooting through beer bottles to get lighting effects, Kim uses theatrical lighting to make characters appear and disappear from scenes, bathing his sets with splashes of danger red and corpse blue, occasionally leavened with chemo green. The camera hides behind furniture, peeks out around the edges, and then clubs viewers over the head with zooms, cutting from scene to scene with no rhyme or reason, as if you’re slipping in and out of consciousness. All the dialogue is dubbed by actors who have swallowed their mics, so no matter where they’re standing in the room they sound like they’re shouting right in your ears, and every shot is full of knick knacks. Chains dangle from the ceilings of fancy living rooms, walls are encrusted with motel art, candles are constantly being lit and waved in front of the camera, and viewers are treated to frequent, lingering close-ups of Mrs. Butterworth bottles, Princess phones, tacky ceramic statues of prancing ponies, and taxidermy.
“What’s up? You still hallucinating?” is a common greeting, and if a character is carrying a box in public it’s only a matter of seconds before some vagrant sneaks up, karate chops them, steals their box, then attacks them with a steam shovel. It’s a movie where characters are constantly making portentous pronouncements about death, then immediately undermining them by saying, “I need to pee. I really need to pee…”
Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly was shot during the military dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee, a time when students were kept under the iron fist of government control and many became obsessed with existentialism and nihilism. It was also a time when lots of students found work as tutors for upper-class families, which put poor, working-class kids in close proximity to the precious daughters of One Percenters. That history gives the film a deeper meaning, but maybe I’m just kidding myself—there might be no deeper meaning at all.
After all, Kim Ki-young would be the first one to say that one explanation is as good as another, as in a scene where Kyungmi rails against her father:
“Mom told me to never marry a boring lifeless man like you,” she screams. “Even if he’s a millionaire, she said you made her want to commit suicide.”
“Hm,” he says, calmly. “Maybe you’re just not getting enough sleep.”
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
…Thailand has added 25 more movies to its National Film Heritage Registry, a promising archival preservation effort by a country which has lost a large portion of its film history to humidity and poor storage. Currently numbering 100 titles, the Registry’s latest titles include everything from Nonzee Nimibutr’s hit supernatural film Nang Nak (99) to King Rama V Visits Stockholm (1897), one of the two oldest remaining examples of film footage of Thais. At the link there’s full info on all 25 of the latest entries, from a bit of Thirties film introducing the first radio station in Phaya Thai Palace, to the oldest surviving Thai horror movie, Pry Ta Khean (40).
…The Donnie Yen vehicle Kung Fu Jungle just bowed at the London Film Festival before its October 30 Hong Kong release, and the first review in from Screen is a rave. Directed by Teddy Chen (Bodyguards & Assassins), Donnie plays a jailed killer who’s released to use his incredible kung fu to catch a martial arts killer played by Lost in Thailand’s Wang Baoqiang. Says Mark Adams, “The final showdown is beautifully staged—especially a pole-fight sequence—but the film also features a series of stylish and nicely brutal fight scenes, including a sword-fight battle in a movie studio set; a grappling fight in a tattoo parlor and perhaps most strikingly a fight using kicks in a Kowloon arts centre atop a massive art piece skeleton.”
…Looks like Rigor Mortis kicked off a revival of the hopping vampire craze, and now Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s King of Bad Taste, is getting on the bandwagon. Sifu vs. Vampire stars Yuen Biao as a Taoist priest going after (what else?) a vampire. Aided by Ronald Cheng and Philip Ng and lots of dodgy CGI, this looks like a throwback to the late Eighties heyday of the anything-goes craptastic blockbuster.
…Speaking of head-scratching new movies, nothing says “What th- ?” more than the trailer for Takashi Miike’s latest, a bizarro take on Battle Royale with school kids being tormented by Japanese folklore. As God Says is the title, but who cares? After making a lot of respectable movies in a row, it looks like Miike is back to dishing out pure insanity.
…Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement is still going on, and the stars who spoke out to show their support are paying a price in a vicious online campaign—supposedly orchestrated by the Mainland government—that accuses them of breaking their “rice bowls” i.e., making money in Mainland China but not sucking up to the Mainland government. A “guidance model” essay has been making the rounds online, instructing users to boycott stars like Chow Yun-fat, Chapman To, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Denise Ho, Anthony Wong, Michelle Chen, and more. In the words of the model essay, “These people normally dug up piles of gold in the Mainland, and at the key moment, they stab their homeland in the back. I can tolerate it no longer and urge all Mainland internet users not to watch their work and performance, and Mainland film and television production companies would refuse their performance in the Mainland.”
Denise Ho’s response? “It’s so dull.” Chapman To’s response, “I’m not interested in responding.” And Anthony Wong? “To the official media: if I have to betray my dignity for your bowl of rice, sorry, your bowl of rice costs too much…We are not beggars, we are art workers with a conscience…Save it to scare those backstabbers who are used to eating your dog food! I am a Hong Konger.” When asked if he was worried about a boycott, Wong answered for most Hong Kong people with a shrug, “Oh, well,” he said.
…Hey, kids! Want action figures of Hong Kong cops tear gassing peaceful protesters? Hong Kong toymakers gotcha covered!