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Where EAST meets the Northwest

FACE TIME. Ki-duk Kimís ability to take an element of South Korean culture and find its emotionally damaged heart echoes throughout his work. Time is currently showing at northeast Portlandís Hollywood Theatre. (Image courtesy of Cineclick Asia)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #33 (August 14, 2007), page 15.

The deeper problems of cosmetic surgery

Time

Directed and produced by Ki-duk Kim

Now showing at Portlandís Hollywood Theatre

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

What makes us love someone? Is it their face, their hands, or something less tangible? If your lover suddenly looked like someone different, would it be excitingly new or horribly wrong? Would you even recognize them?

Leave it to South Korean director Ki-duk Kim to take plastic surgery, a popular luxury on both sides of the Pacific, and weave such complex emotions and ideas into it. Time, the sweet-and-sour film that results from his efforts, is as tightly wound as any confused-identity thriller, yet Kim focuses on the damage suffered by the central couple as they try to understand what keeps them together.

Ki-duk Kimís ability to take an element of South Korean culture and find its emotionally damaged heart echoes throughout his work. Kimís The Coast Guard (2002) explored the effects of paranoid tension at the South Korean coastline, and his Samaritan Girl (2004) twisted the lost-innocence story of two schoolgirls trying to earn money through prostitution into an even darker tale. His themes of memory, identity, vengeance, and their complex relationships with love echo strongly within South Korean culture, yet are universal enough to reach audiences everywhere.

Time begins with unsettling footage of cosmetic surgery, which is often used by Asians to make them seem more Western. This notion is strengthened by the reappearing motif of the clinicís doors bisecting a huge face into its pre- and post-operative halves, one side drab and distinctly Asian, the other heavily made up and indubitably Westernized. But Kimís storyline does not explicitly follow this nationalist tone, focusing instead on the relationship between Ji-woo (Jung-woo Ha) and his girlfriend, Seh-hee (Hyun-ah Sung).

Seh-hee becomes instantly and irrationally enraged whenever Ji-woo evinces interest in another woman, whether through a longing glance at a coffeeshop waitress or during an exchange of information following a fender-bender. She believes that he has become weary of her face, and Ji-woo cannot profess or exhibit his love enough for her. Seh-hee soon disappears from his life, seeking a new face from the plastic surgeon, believing this will re-energize their love.

Instead, Ji-woo is despondent and cannot seem to get over her; each time he tries to begin a relationship or simply visit a prostitute, a mysterious but unseen force intervenes. We suspect it is Seh-hee, but Kim does not tip his hand so easily, and his use of a "stalker cam" angle ratchets the tension and underlines the central theme of identity. Ji-woo becomes more lonely, depressed, and confused, returning often to a sculpture garden they used to visit together, once finding a mysterious, masked woman there (is it Seh-hee?). When he finally meets a beautiful woman on the ferry to this garden, Ji-woo believes he has found love again, and is mildly surprised to find that his new love is named See-hee.

As the audience wonders whether See-hee is also Seh-hee, Kimís intent becomes apparent. Does it matter who this woman "really" is? Would Ji-woo feel differently, depending on which woman lurks behind the new face? Again, the audience is as clueless as the main characters, and we wonder along with Ji-woo about his new love. A letter from Seh-hee sets his inner turmoil raging, and soon neither of the two lovers knows who their real partner is. The movie spirals toward its dramatic conclusion ó the audience feeling the same disorientation of the lovers, scrutinizing every character for evidence of their true identity ó and ends with a twist that is both satisfying and puzzling at once.

In other hands, this plot might have become just another thriller (remember John Wooís 1997 Face/Off?), but Kimís approach delves far deeper, retaining the suspenseful elements while focusing on notions of love, attraction, and identity. The plot holes are relatively small ó would one lover not know anotherís body, touch, and kiss, even beneath a different face? ó and insignificant under Kimís otherwise masterful handling of a complex plot. His ability to bring the audience into the identity confusion draws us inexorably into the emotions of the story, leading to a deeply resonant ending. Itís the sort of movie that will likely inspire lively discussion, if not argument, among couples who see it, and everyone should leave with an imagination tickled by the notion that we can never be sure who is behind the faces, both familiar and strange, that we see every day.

Time is currently showing at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd., Portland). For more information or show times, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org>.