Kim Ki-duk’s Aporia: The Face and Hospitality (on 3-Iron)

Mention the name Kim Ki-duk, the South Korean auteur, to contemporary cinephiles and one is likely to receive one of two responses.[1] On the one side, a panoply of pejoratives may be invoked: misogynistic, lurid, gratuitous, juvenile, exploitative, the notorious “bad guy”, or the enfant terrible, of Korean cinema. Kim’s films may also be mentioned, such as The Isle (2000), Address Unknown (2001), or Bad Guy (2001), films that feature unforgettable images of corporeal abuse, involving objects such as barbed fishhooks and golf clubs, and whose vulnerable victims include social outcasts, the poor, and young teenagers. Some spectators may express having suffered a kind of discomfort or punishment following screenings of Kim’s films, perhaps explaining that they themselves were traumatized by his images of cruelty. Referring to the violence of his films, Chicago Reader film critic Hank Sartin writes that, “The audience is subjected to a series of emotional contortions, encouraged to experience them like a voyeur, and then scolded for doing so. The pathetic music Kim favors is profoundly at odds with his chilly attitude toward the characters”.[2]  Detractors also point to the sheer implausibility of his films, complain about the irrational behavior of the characters, criticize moments of surreal, elliptical fantasy, and condemn plot dénouements that do not empower, leaving the viewer with a sense of inexorable hopelessness. These are “bad” films, it has been remarked, made by an ostensibly “bad” filmmaker.

On the other side, there are adherents who praise Kim’s body of work as expressive of a unique artistic vision. Kim is apparently a cineaste “of the wild beauty”, as a recent 2007 documentary by French film scholar Antoine Coppola proclaims. Here the agonizing sadism of his films is validated as the counterpart to their exotic splendor. Where acts of extreme violence take place, they do so against a backdrop of lush, beautifully shot scenery. Everyday objects are creatively reappropriated for alternate, decidedly more violent uses in Kim’s cinema – like a bow which is at once a musical instrument and a deadly weapon, or a toy gun fashioned from wooden boxes that unexpectedly blinds the shooter. “Violence in Kim Ki-duk’s films”, film critic Adrien Gombeaud writes, “only exists to let out a moment of gentleness… and vice-versa. The propensity for a character to appear nasty has as equivalence only the need to be comforte.”[3]  These validations of the convulsive beauty found in Kim’s films are nevertheless in danger of excusing the brutality committed upon the bodies of the inexplicable, presumably less grievable, Oriental others portrayed in his films. Still, his work has been recognized internationally in film festival and art house theater circuits and has garnered numerous awards. The “bad guy” of Korean cinema has received Best Director at the Berlin and Venice International Film Festivals, for example, and most recently the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes for his self-reflexive, if not self-absorbed, documentary Arirang (2011). In 2008, Kim was given a complete retrospective at the New York MoMA, the first of its kind for a contemporary South Korean filmmaker.

In a recent essay, film scholar Hye Seung Chung expresses sympathy with feminists who cannot and do not forgive Kim’s thuggish cinema, yet she nevertheless refrains from fully siding with their disapproving position. Despite claims that Bad Guy represents, according to one South Korean feminist writer, an example of “dangerous penis fascism”,[4] Chung refrains from condemning Kim’s 2001 film, believing that it “is a far cry from conventional sexploitation fare”.[5] She contextualizes the diegetic world depicted in Bad Guy with the historical world of prostitution and pimps in South Korea, writing that Kim’s “multilayered film skillfully interweaves reality and fantasy as well as soft-porn melodrama and indictments against Korea’s class system”.[6] The social problems depicted in his films derive from the writer-director’s personal experience, reflecting and commenting upon what Kim has seen and experienced. Chung writes that in this regard Kim’s “corpus can be best described as a necessarily brutal cinema, one that accurately reflects and symbolically avenges the cruelty of a classist, conformist society”.[7] For this reason Chung argues that Kim’s cinema is “necessarily” a cinema of Nietzschean ressentiment. A special type of resentment elaborated in The Genealogy of Morals,[8] ressentiment names accumulated feelings of hatred and envy that cannot be expressed against those who are perceived to be superior in rank. These essentially reactive feelings remain unexpressed, or are not acted upon, because they are dominated by an intense counter-feeling of impotence. Kim’s films depict the world of those who remain excluded from those social groups that have most benefited from South Korea’s globalizing economy, groupings forged, not through the free market of neoliberal meritocracy, but through collusions of power such as familial and university connections. The abject protagonists depicted in Kim’s films are not adept at speaking the analytical languages of competing Cold War ideologies, but can only speak their own profound resentment toward their more fortunate others, a ressentiment that grows as they become increasingly entrenched in their slave morality.

Thus the violence depicted in The Coast Guard (2002), for example, does not only function to provoke but also reflects the callousness produced by the politico-military deadlock between the North and South Koreas. Chung writes that its scenes of cruelty, “can be seen as a desperate (and desperately needed) exclamation point – a kind of corporeal exclamation point – emphasizing the excruciating pain suffered by abject heroes, who often serve as semiautobiographical portraits of the filmmaker himself”.[9]  “Desperately needed” apparently, because a critique of the misogynist brutality that arises with the implementation of militarization remains desperately urgent. Thus in reflecting contemporary South Korean society, Kim’s cinema performs an important role by accurately depicting this violence, however brutal. This is not to gratuitously exploit, but to provide spectators the opportunity to critically confront the violence that too often is elided in everyday life.

In this essay I would like to follow up on some of Chung’s illuminating observations regarding Kim’s “necessarily brutal cinema” by pointing to the uneasy relationship of Kim’s work to his times as well as to the timing and historicity of critique itself. Assessments of Kim’s cinema often rely on self-assured frameworks, entrenched in aesthetic positions that reproduce moralistic arguments around the cinematic representation of cruelty in general. Such reception has quickly and repeatedly deemed his films controversial, idiosyncratic, unwanted, and “worthless”.[10]  In the following discussion I will take a close look at Kim’s 2004 film Bin-jip (3-Iron), a film that puts a number of themes around ethics and visuality into play, and which I believe may be read, in a semiautobiographical fashion, as Kim responding to his critics. His cinema is necessarily a critical cinema, I argue, not by participating in the exchange of thesis and antithesis that has characterized assessment of Kim’s films up to now, but by refusing to participate in this exchange as well as its historicity. In performing their cultural critique Kim’s films may be read to disrupt the notion of history that periodizes distinct notions of past, present, and future, while radically interrupting linear, causal time: in short Kim’s films may be called, in the most Nietzschean sense, an ‘untimely’ cinema.

In the lead essay for her 2005 book, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, political theorist Wendy Brown makes an affirmative case for the untimeliness of critique, particularly that which is deemed unwanted in dark times. Untimely critique becomes urgent when the times are locked into a predictive telos, when they advance like clockwork, unreflective, toward a singular goal. When workers at the forefront of their political struggle admonish the critics among them with the retort “It’s not the time”, Brown writes that these critics invoke time in three senses:

(1) the timing relevant to successful political campaigns, (2) the constrained or dark political times we feel ourselves to be in, and (3) appropriateness, mannerliness, or civility – timeliness as temperateness about when, how, and where one raises certain issues or mentions certain problems.[11]

Untimely critique does not aim to repudiate the times, but interrogates the sense of temporality that underpins the time of identitarian politics, criticizing the sense of history that presupposes this politics. Brown writes that, “If the charge of untimeliness inevitably also fixes time, then disrupting this fixity is crucial to keeping the times from closing in on us”.[12]

Untimely critique does not pursue a teleological politics, a politics where victory is the only acceptable result, but intervenes on the times itself, posing inappropriate questions in order to secure a more thoughtful, more ethical politics. If, according to Benjamin’s sixteenth thesis on the philosophy of history, “historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past”,[13] untimely critique aims to bring the present to an awareness of itself and its grounding metaphysics in order to resurrect critical thinking precisely in this moment of stillness. In an age where mental activity is overdetermined by the logic of means and ends, critique paves the way beyond the horizon of the present, toward the inquisitive, in order to introduce future uncertainty and bring irreducible aporias into view. The untimely involves “both close attunement to the times and aggressive violation of their self-conception”,[14] carrying with it the call, not to repudiate or dismiss, but to engage more intimately with, reread, and re-evaluate, the current state of things. “Critical theory in dark times thus affirms the times, renders them differently, reclaims them for something other than the darkness”, Brown concludes, “in this sense, critical theory in dark times is a singular practice of amor fati”.[15]

I read Kim’s work as an untimely cinema in a number of ways: (1) as a cinema of ressentiment that represents those who are often misrepresented or not represented at all in an increasingly neoliberal media climate, and who remain non-synchronous with the time of globalization, (2) subsequently as a critique of power, upsetting bourgeois sensibilities and middle-class conformity in South Korea by laying bare the violence that undergirds the logic of winners and losers in the global capitalist economy, (3) and as a critique of cinema spectatorship, undermining conformist assumptions about what constitutes global art cinema while problematizing ostensibly settled ways of viewing this cinema. For the remainder of my discussion I will be emphasizing this third critique.

In order to show how these critical interventions may be read in Kim’s films, I turn to a striking, and often commented upon, feature of the main protagonists of his films – namely their mute silence. Beginning with Hee-Jin, the fishing resort clerk in The Isle, Kim has progressively explored the use of characters who do not talk in order to discover new ways of ‘speaking’ in the cinema. Han-ki, the violent pimp in Bad Guy; Jae-yeong, an amateur teenage prostitute who commits suicide in Samaria (2004); and a young girl and old man, married to each other by the end of The Bow (2005): these characters cannot or do not voice their thoughts, and as such their psychology must be communicated to the spectator through body language alone. This places extra weight on the significance of reaction shots, for in order to understand what characters might be thinking, i.e. to postulate a psychological interiority, physiognomy becomes crucial in guiding the viewer’s sympathy and identification.

In an interview conducted in April of 2005, Kim tells us that:

It’s not necessarily that the characters don’t need words to communicate, but really it’s a strategy to force the audience to fill in the blanks themselves. So in some ways they insert sort of their own dialogue throughout the film: imagining what they would say – imagining what might be said when there is silence in the film.[16]

These comments highlight at least two important insights into Kim’s cinema. (1) They recall film’s silent period, where in lieu of diegetic sound, emotions and affect were primarily conveyed through acting and facial expression. By circumventing language, which immediately marks the particular cultural location of an actor, facial and bodily expression substitute for the voice and bespeak an ostensibly universal language of gesture. “Laughter and crying are I think important elements of dialogue in film”,[17] Kim continues, pointing to means of communication between human beings that circumvent spoken dialogue. (2) Silences mark the gap where spectators are invited to inscribe affect onto the bodies of the characters. They request of the viewer not to sit back and relinquish engagement with the cinema, but to lean forward and interact with these silent figures in an effort to produce filmic and narrative meaning. The silence comes to speak louder than words, taking advantage of cinema’s monstrative capacities to show rather than simply tell. In so far as the face externalizes internal thoughts and desires, the skin of the screen could be said to be phenomenologically continuous with the skin of these silent characters’ physiognomies, for both are offered up to the spectator as exteriorities to be experienced, read, and felt.

Kim’s thoughts on affect and the face may be pushed further by being read alongside and through Gilles Deleuze’s proposal of faceicity in his book Cinema 1. In the passages on the affection-image, Deleuze identifies the cinema image as itself a close-up of the face, offering up the world as an affective surface to be seen and read. “The affect is the entity”, he writes:

that is Power or Quality. It is something expressed: the affect does not exist independently of something which expresses it, although it is completely distinct from it. What expresses it is a face, or a facial equivalent (a faceified object) or, as we will see later, even a proposition.[18]

We normally think of the face in cinema as the embodiment of a character’s emotional response to a situation, as the manifestation of an internal emotion through physiognomy. The face functions as a mirror and screen for what a character might be thinking. But this is not what Deleuze means. He is not asking what the face represents or what it hides. He asks rather about what the face in cinema means as a possibility, about what it can do. The face does not function simply as a carrier of emotion, but as a sign points to the potential creation of affect, not yet actualized, always in excess of its teleological formation.

There is thus a stark difference between the image itself and what the image invites: both are embedded within but separate from the world in which they are situated. Deleuze quotes Béla Balázs’s Theory of the Film to illustrate this further:

For the expression of a face and the significance of this expression have no relation or connection with space. Faced with an isolated face, we do not perceive space. Our sensation of space is abolished. A dimension of another order is open to us.[19]

This otherness does not obey the totalizing law of Cartesian geometry and cannot be cognitively mapped in relation to a unified field. Rather, it belongs to a wholly affective logic, affirming the possibility of the contingent, singular event as an expression of vital life itself. And in so far as singularity is inextricably linked to the face, it is the spaceless, decontextualized face that shows the way toward this other, physiognomic dimension. Deleuze comes to call this virtual space, existing outside the actual order of things while embedded within it, “any-space-whatever”.

The crucial consequence to this subtle distinction between the image and affect is such that it propels the face further toward this otherness. The face in cinema is “not a sensation, a feeling, an idea, but the quality of a possible sensation, feeling or idea”.[20]  On the one hand, the silent face is an image that is constituted by its cinematic materiality, for as a sign it refers to an actual state of things in a world we know and inhabit – it ‘reflects’ an historical world. On the other, it invites specific virtual affective entities that pave the way toward an openness, not only to an actual state, but, more significantly, to other possible affects and other possible worlds.

The close-up on the face does not simply represent emotion, nor does it solely communicate affect from sender to receiver. Following Kim formulations, its function is to render the physiognomy’s unfolding, such that the laughing face bespeaks the potential for happiness, while the image of crying prepares for the expression of sadness: both appear as the prelude to the production of affect. The face may thus be thought as the image of potentiality, or the givenness of another order that makes communication possible at all: a silent face, recalling Kim, “forces the audience to fill in the blanks themselves”. Deleuze then follows:

The pure affect, the pure expressed of the state of things in fact relates to a face which expresses it (or to several faces, or to equivalents, or to propositions). It is the face which gathers and expresses the affect as a complex entity, and secures the virtual conjunctions between singular points of this entity (the brightness, the blade, the terror, the compassionate look…).[21]

Physiognomy for Deleuze could be said to serve as a kind of blank screen that at the same time amalgamates multiple and contingent relations as a plane of possibility. Silence does not foreclose discourse, but rather serves as the very conditions for its articulation, and moreover for constituting an outside to the present state of things. The silent face anticipates the arrival of affective meaning and remains hospitable to the contingency of the future.

3-Iron serves as a particularly interesting case study for thinking through these issues because it features two characters that remain silent throughout the entire film. It tells the story of a young drifter called Tae-suk (Lee Hyun-kyoon) who breaks and enters into uninhabited homes. During his visitations, he uses their absent owners’ toothbrushes and showers, cooks and eats with their utensils, uses their toilets, and sleeps on their sofas. Nothing is stolen, nor is anything altered. Tae-suk repays their unintended hospitality by performing home improvement, fixing broken possessions, and cleaning up the apartments he visits. Before his departure he erases all traces of anyone having been there.

In most cases, Tae-suk is not discovered or caught. However a battered woman, Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), catches him masturbating in bed while looking at a coffee table book of erotic photographs. Surprised, he switches on the light and sits up. The film cuts to Sun-hwa’s bruised face at the moment her answering machine records an irate message from her abusive husband, Min-gyu (Kwon Hyuk-ho), demanding that she pick up the phone. Throughout this angry off-screen monologue Tae-suk and Sun-hwa do not say a word. Indeed their faces are striking in that their expression remains unchanging, as if unaffected. The construction of this encounter is quite simple, composed of a series of shot-reverse shots. Yet when Tae-suk and Sun-hwa gaze at each other, we as spectators read into their faces, despite their lack of expression, a complex progression of emotions: surprise, disgust, weariness, and finally perhaps a request for forgiveness. As if to underscore the status of their faces as interpretive surfaces, Tae-suk’s countenance is juxtaposed to a photograph of Sun-hwa hanging on the wall. In the eyes of the law, his trespassing would be deemed criminal, but it is not clear whether in her eyes she thinks the same. Sun-hwa’s face remains open to the visitation of this stranger, finding him perhaps somehow fascinating. She leaves the house with Tae-suk and accompanies the young man as he continues his aimless stopovers (a gesture that fulfills the melodramatic impulse to save the battered woman from her controlling husband).

The second time Tae-suk is discovered, he and Sun-hwa temporarily inhabit the home of a boxer, where a portrait of the tough man, wearing boxing gloves and trunks, hangs prominently near the front door. When he and his wife return home and discover Tae-suk and Sun-hwa sleeping in their bed, the husband silently dons his gloves and assaults Tae-suk, giving him a bloody nose and black eye. His injured face resembles that of Sun-hwa’s.

The next time they are caught Tae-suk is brought into police custody. He breaks into a unit in a dilapidated apartment complex and finds an old man lying motionless on the floor with his face near a pool of blood. A small dog rests in his arm. The man’s death apparently had taken place unaccompanied by family and relatives. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa carefully wrap the body and perform rites before they bury him. After mopping up the blood, they silently cook food and begin eating in the old man’s apartment. At this moment his relatives drop by for a visit. Shocked, they immediately call the police.

The housebreakers are brought to a dark interrogation room. Detective Lee (Park Dong-jin), despite evidence to the contrary, interpellates Tae-suk as a rapist and kidnapper, charging him with murder. Characters who speak in 3-Iron tend to be the most belligerent and antagonistic, and articulate the masculinist voice of the law. The detective looks at Tae-suk’s face and casts judgment, asking questions that presuppose his guilt. Before allowing him his full otherness, and the potential ambiguity of his intentions, the thuggish detective inscribes culpability onto the young man. Faced with this silent, indeterminable face, the detective refuses Tae-suk’s implicit vulnerability that his wordless physiogonomy implicitly introduces within the visual field.[22] Unable to penetrate the unknown agenda that hides behind his physiognomy, the detective hastily emplots Tae-suk within a history of morality, guilt, punishment, and revenge – terms that constitute the normal course of historical temporality.

If Tae-suk may be read as a stand in for Kim Ki-duk, then the interrogation scene also may be read as allegorizing the judgments made by film critics about Kim and his work. Indeed, many are quick to summon a series of pejoratives that relegate his cinema inappropriate, as lacking the ‘manners’ associated with global cinema. Like Tae-suk, Kim is quickly deemed a brute and offered no possibility of overcoming the strict moral binarism enacted through his critics’ interpellating look.

However it is precisely this manner of criticism that constitutes the untimeliness of Kim’s films, for by making interrogation into a spectacle, Kim poses to those who are quick to criticize the ethical problematic of the aggressive interrogator. In doing so, Kim poses the question of how his otherness might be recognized and affirmed in a gesture of hospitality, for it is from this idealized position where the deconstruction of violence may take place. Such gestures remain enormously difficult, for the recognition of the face lies at the limit of recognition itself, threatening to disrupt narcissistic modes of spectatorship.

What I am trying to argue will stir some controversy because it may seem that I want to relinquish this visceral threat posed by Kim’s films. However in my opinion Kim’s critics are not critical enough when they maintain that the “sexual terrorism”[23] of his films necessarily reveals the psychopathic nature of their characters or of the director’s own ostensibly morbid psychology. This logic seems to me much too straightforward, presuming that signifier and signified easily correspond in a one-to-one relationship, as if the aim of cinema were only to transparently reflect the reality of society or express the ‘mind’ of the auteur. This hermeneutics however depends on the rhetorics of realism that are already given to the viewer, while potentially foreclosing other meaning-making strategies of the cinema.

What is at stake is the cinematic face as first, the production of affect and its potentiality outside its given historical reality and second, the brute appearance of the other as confounding the epistemic parameters of this historical reality. I would like to argue that the spectator’s intensely disconcerting encounter with Kim’s images of cruelty, images that mark the limit point of humanistic, rationalized scrutiny,points the way toward radical alterity. Characters that commit horrific acts of bodily aggression raise the question of ethics itself, and ask whether the question is even possible; co-extensively, it is the encounter of the spectator with the face of Kim’s cinema that reminds us that film does not simply represent like a window on the world, but has always been endowed with other aesthetic potentialities. The cinema image grants the viewer the opportunity, through rigorous critique, to begin undoing the present moral order so that, as Balázs puts it, “a dimension of another order is open to us”.

The silent face in Kim’s cinema, by remaining open to affect and possibility, remains at the same time open and hospitable to the arrival of the enigmatic other. As such, its zero ground serves as an allegory for the encounter with radical difference, pointing at the same time to the possibility of new desires, new alliances, and new affects (and of course new deceptions). Silent faces do not conform to a predetermined morality, and comply neither with a corrupt state nor a patriarchal law. Rather, they seem to conform to a law outside the present state of things. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa dwell in the world as drifters, moving from house to house, and like ghosts inhabit these homes as invisible presences. At what point does the mysterious other, the visitation of the foreigner into one’s “empty house” (the Korean title of Kim’s film), become threatening, and is it possible to be hospitable to the menace of these foreign faces?

The second half of 3-Iron seems to respond to such a question. A key turning point occurs when Tae-suk is brought into the jail and learns to become invisible to others. He is brought into a white-walled prison cell with three other inmates. They begin to play golf with an invisible ball and club. When they tussle over the possession of the unseen golf ball, jailers rush in and pull Tae-suk off the other inmates, placing him in a solitary cell. While in confinement, he gradually cultivates the ability to move quietly, climb walls, and hide in the shadows – becoming visually undetectable to the gaze of others. However each time the guard discovers ‘Prisoner 2904’ evading his scrutiny, he violently beats him with his night stick. Eventually Tae-suk is able to completely elude the moralizing scrutiny of the jailer’s eye, slipping silently in the negative space behind him. “The human eye sees 180 degrees”, the guard remarks, “so you’re hiding in the other 180 degrees?” Tae-suk lets himself be discovered once more and is given a brutal beating.

After having served his time, Tae-suk returns to some of the homes he had visited and, utilizing his newly developed skills for slipping out of sight, silently haunts these spaces. He breaks into familiar houses once more, yet this time they are not empty. With his disappearing skills, he totally eludes the vision of their inhabitants, even when they are at home. Tae-suk’s visitations evoke a sense of uncanniness in his unintended hosts, becoming a ghost. (One could argue that Tae-suk perished in prison from the brutality of the guards and that only his afterlife haunts the rest of 3-Iron. Each time he is beaten his body is left strangely unbruised.)

Tae-suk’s hauntology is affirmed in a suggestive article by Seongho Yoon, “Empty Houses Haunted: Hauntology of Space in Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron”. Yoon argues that Kim presents unseen characters in 3-Iron to “defamiliarize and refamiliarize our views of others around us who, unbeknownst to us, share our space”.[24] This defamiliarization is implicitly destabilizing, critical of those ways of knowing that elude our everyday comportment toward the world.

While the human eye is able only to take in one hundred eighty degrees of vision, the ghosts recommend using the remaining one hundred eighty degrees not to fail to sense, if not outright tangibly, the ghosts we refuse to acknowledge yet still cannot help but feel resonating around us.[25]

Ghosts already are untimely in that they confuse distinctions between past and present, and upset ossified notions of temporality by disrupting the linearity of historical time.

Yoon highlights a specific moment from 3-Iron when the presence of ghosts is welcomed. While Tae-suk learns to make himself invisible in jail, Sun-hwa also returns to one of the homes they had temporarily inhabited. Through parallel editing, she is shown visiting the hanok inhabited by a harmonious couple, who wear traditional clothing and live by gardening and cleaning their Buddhist sculptures. When Sun-hwa steps in, she says not a word, yet the puzzled inhabitants do not stop her from entering their open-air home. Sun-hwa takes a nap where she had previously spent time with Tae-suk. The husband of the house remarks that he does not know their unexpected guest personally, yet he tells his wife to grant her hospitality and “let her sleep”. In his essay Yoon observes that this home “is the only place where the logic of boundaries does not prevail, and distinctions between host and guest does (sic) not hold true any more”.[26] While the depiction in this scene is somewhat essentialized and idealized, the couple’s welcoming attitude toward the foreign guest is clear. It stands in stark contrast to highly aggressive, inhospitable attitude held by the boxer, the relatives of the old man, and Detective Lee, who upon their discovery of Tae-suk and Sun-hwa had retaliated in their right to violence and power.

How is it possible that the distinction between host and guest does not hold in this particular scene with this mild mannered couple? What does it mean to be a host, and how does the host offer hospitality to the other? To be a host means not only to allow the presence of the guest into one’s own midst, but also, as the precondition of this gesture of hospitality, to be master over one’s home. Within the capitalist understanding of social relations between sovereign individuals, to be master over one’s home means to own private property. As such the definition of hospitality is always circumscribed by the tension between the host and the guest, or the tension between what belongs to the host and what may be rightfully allowed to the guest. How are the rights of the guest determined within the host’s home, and by whom? The fundamental indeterminability of these rights underpins the antinomy that is so crucial for Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of hospitality in the seminars he conducted in 1996:

In other words, there would be an antinomy, an insoluble antinomy, a non-dialectizable antinomy between, on the one hand, The law of unlimited hospitality (to give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own, without asking a name, or compensation, or the fulfillment of even the smallest condition), and on the other hand, the laws (in the plural), those rights and duties that are always conditioned and conditional, as they are defined by the Greco-Roman tradition and even the Judeo-Christian one, by all of law and all philosophy of law up to Kant and Hegel in particular, across the family, civil society, and the State.[27]

Hospitality always runs up against the problem of how rights that belong to the guest may be defined. The granting of hospitality is always motivated by its unconditional definition, an idealized notion that allows the guest full access to one’s home such that boundaries do not prevail. This pure notion of hospitality is without debt and does not participate in the ordinary course of historical temporality, remaining fundamentally untimely. It does not struggle to achieve victory over the other, for hospitality circumscribes the rights of the guest and the ontology of his cohabitation within the host’s home. The obligation to be hospitable underpins the language of giving and the obligatory right to receive, obligations that are at odds with each other and forms the core of the deconstructive aporia. Every possible hospitable gesture, performed in real world situations, stands against the backdrop of its own idealized vision.

Paralleling the hauntological condition of the specter, the temporality of the film medium itself inheres in its capacity to re-present in the present events that took place in the past, allowing it to haunt the present. The photographic film image inherently upends clear cut distinctions between distinct temporalities. In her reading of Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Brown brings out the passages that insist upon our cohabitation with ghosts, learning to live with their untimely, destabilizing presence, and learning how to be hospitable to their visitation. “Learning to live”, Brown writes,

means living without systematizing, without conceits of coherence, without a consistent and complete picture, and without a clear delineation between past and present. Living with ghosts, permitting and even exploiting their operation as a deconstructive device, means living with the permanent disruption of the usual opposites that render our world coherent – between the material and the ideal, the past and the present, the real and the fictive, the true and the false. Ghosts are what rise from materialism, periodicity, and objectivity after each has been slain by the exposure of their untenable predicates.[28]

Learning to live with specters, afterlives of those who have been lost, means learning how to be hospitable to death’s futural arrival. “I would like to learn to live finally”,[29] as Derrida begins his book on Marx, which he later explains means learning how to live “from the other and by death”. Derrida’s deconstruction of the specter parallels his treatment of hospitality, for he stands, “in any case from the other at the edge of life. At the internal border or the external border, it is a heterodidactics between life and death”.[30] Ghosts, who remind us mortals of the always untimely event of our own finitude, engage us, not in the struggle for eternal life, but in the lifelong project of cohabitating with the otherness of death and co-extensively with the otherness of the other.

Such a vision of cohabitation is explicitly depicted in the very last scene of 3-Iron. Tae-suk, who has now become a furtive apparition, returns to Sun-hwa’s house at night. She and Min-gyu are lying in bed. Min-gyu suddenly wakes up and picks up a golf club, sensing the presence of the young deviant in his home. Suspicious, he remarks to Sun-hwa, “I think someone’s here – could it be him? He’s bad luck, that son of a bitch”. Min-gyu tells her to return to sleep as he lies back in bed. She however exits the bedroom and walks around the house looking for Tae-suk. Sun-hwa turns to a mirror and sees the young drifter enter the frame behind him. With both of their images in the mirror, she raises her hand and caresses his smiling face. At this very moment, Min-gyu emerges from the bedroom, again armed with a raised golf club, and turns to Sun-hwa. Tae-suk now gone, she looks at herself in the mirror. “What are you doing awake?” her husband gruffly asks. Sun-hwa, her face in close-up, turns around and approaches him. Now in medium shot, she calmly says, “I love you”, uttering her very first words of the film. Incredulous, Min-gyu looks around to make certain she addresses no one else. “Honey”, he says tenderly, falling into her arms. Meanwhile, Sun-hwa reaches out with her left hand and Tae-suk silently enters the frame, coming up behind Min-gyu. Outside his field of vision, while as her face rests on her husband’s shoulder, Tae-suk kisses her.

The next day, Sun-hwa’s husband leaves for work. As the music of the North African singer Natacha Atlas plays from a CD, Sun-hwa and Tae-suk step on a scale together. A close-up shows us that it reads “0 kg”, suggesting that as ghosts, their physical weight is zero. As the image goes out of focus to signal the end of the film, a final statement is articulated in an intertitle: “It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either a reality or a dream”. In these remarkable scenes the filmmaker does not attempt to delineate good and evil as reified categories, but instead affirms both as a specific possibility of the cinematic image, and of the cinematic face. Blurring the distinctions between guest and host, granting hospitality to the ghost means learning to live with his otherness. It requires thinking in an untimely, critical manner that recognizes the persistence of past apparitions in the here and now, and the presence of specters, which exist ostensibly only in dream, in the realm of reality.

“I try very hard not to portray anybody as a bad guy – not even the husband”. Kim comments in the 2005 interview,

The overarching theme – especially the theme embodied in the resolution is one of coexistence. If you think about it, if they were to escape, that would exclude the husband. They would go someplace where the husband would not be around. But this sort of intervening and coexistence with the husband still there really portrays the possibilities that the three people can arrive at an understanding of each other. So there’s no winner. There’s no loser. And their lives would continue and, at some point, change – but I’m not about the say how.[31]

How can we represent the mystery of others and what will it take to recognize hitherto excluded members of the present-day liberalizing, global economy within our field of vision? At the very moment of the impossibility of ethics, Kim’s cinema simultaneously raises these urgent, untimely questions, asking whether within the current state of things hospitable coexistence, particularly with those we call the ‘bad guy’, can be realized.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Brown, Wendy. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Chung, Hye Seung. “Beyond ‘Extreme’: Rereading Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment”, Journal of Film and Video 62, (2010), 96-111.

Davis, Therese. The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition & Spectatorship. Bristol: Intellect, 2004.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Gombeaud, Adrien. Kim Ki Duk. Trans. Paul Buck and Catherine Petit. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 2006.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1967.

Rayns, Tony. “Sexual Terrorism: The Strange Case of Kim Ki-Duk,” Film Comment 40 (2004), 50-52.

Sartin, Hank. Chicago Reader, February 11, 2005.

Yoon, Seongho. “Empty Houses Haunted: Hauntology of Space in Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron,” Post Script 27, no. 3 (2008).

[1]This paper began as a conference presentation for “A Cinema of Affect: Contemporary Korean Cinema”, which took place at Yale University in April 2007. I would like to thank the conference organizers, Jinhee Choi and Seung-hoon Jeong, for having provided the opportunity to present these ideas.

[2]Hank Sartin, Chicago Reader, February 11, 2005.

[3]Adrien Gombeaud, “Break on Through”, Kim Ki Duk, Paul Buck and Catherine Petit, trans. (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 2006), 24.

[4] Hye Seung Chung, “Beyond ‘Extreme’: Rereading Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment”, Journal of Film and Video 62, no. 1-2 (2010), 100.

[5] Chung, 100.

[6] Chung, 100.

[7] Chung, 100-101.

[8] See the Second Essay of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (New York: Random House, 1967).

[9] Chung, 102.

[10] Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s evaluation of Kim’s Samaritan Girl (2004), in his review published on June 24, 2005.

[11] Wendy Brown, “Untimeliness and Punctuality: Critical Theory in Dark Times”, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 4.

[12] Brown, 4.

[13] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Schocken, 1968), 262. This thesis is discussed in detail in Brown’s essay.

[14] Brown, 14.

[15] Brown, 16.

[18] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 97.

[19] Quoted in Deleuze, 96. The Edith Bone translation presents this passage differently, however I believe the argument still holds: “Even if we have just seen the owner of the face in a long shot, when we look into the eyes in a close-up, we no longer think of that wide space, because the expression and significance of the face has no relation to space and no connection with it. Facing an isolated face takes us out of space, our consciousness of space is cut out and we find ourselves in another dimension: that of physiognomy”. See Béla Balázs, Theory of Film, Edith Bone, trans. (New York: Dover, 1970), 61

[20] Deleuze, 98.

[21] Deleuze, 103.

[22] Along these lines see Therese Davis, The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition & Spectatorship (Bristol: intellect, 2004). Davis’s book performs a number of close readings of how the unrecognizable face in contemporary media allows the brute facticity of death to come into view. “The shock of recognition”, she writes, “produced in the dialectic of recognition and unrecognizability rehearses the experience of facing death: those unexpected moments when we are suddenly made aware of the full powers of death: finality, irreversibility, absolute otherness” (2).

[23] This is the title of Tony Rayns’s article on Kim. See Tony Rayns, “Sexual Terrorism: The Strange Case of Kim Ki-Duk”, Film Comment 40, no. 6 (2004), 50-52.

[24]Seongho Yoon, “Empty Houses Haunted: Hauntology of Space in Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron”, Post Script 27, no. 3 (2008), 65.

[25] Yoon, 65.

[26] Yoon, 66.

[27] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, Rachel Bowlby, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 77.

[28] Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 146.

[29] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International, Peggy Kamuf, trans. (New York: Routledge, 1994), xvii.

[30] Derrida, xviii.

About the Author

Steve Choe

About the Author

Steve Choe

Steve Choe is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. He teaches and writes on the cinemas of Germany and South Korea. Choe is currently working on a book project called Afterlives: Allegories of Film and Mortality in Early Weimar Germany.View all posts by Steve Choe →