Friday, January 21, 2011

Courtesy of SBS: Time

The common knock against science fiction writer Greg Egan is that, for all the fascination inherent in his scenarios, he is unable to create characters. I've always found this claim to be unfair - it's not that he doesn't create characters, it's just that those characters are always first and foremost a function of the scenario. The only part of their history, of their personality, that we get to see is the part that has a direct bearing on the philosophical question at hand. They're highly detailed people; they're just very narrowly detailed people.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach. There might be if Egan were attempting character studies but he's not. He's interested in exploring the personal and philosophical conundrums that rapidly changing technology presents. To my mind that's as valid a mission for an artist as creating complex personal portraits is.

It's a mission that, on the basis of Time anyway, Kim Ki-duk shares. To be fair Ki-duk isn't really interested in the possibilities and pitfalls of plastic surgery and what they might mean for us on a realistic level, but he does seem interested in very narrow philosophical questions of intimacy, novelty and identity and his character's traits are subordinated to exploring those questions.

Time is about the desire to enjoy intimacy with one person "till death do us part" and yet also the need to constantly be surprised and excited by that person. To maintain her lover's (Ji-Woo) interest the female protagonist (Seh-Hee) undergoes plastic surgery to make her self unrecognisable and enters his life again as a new person.  

To get her to this end both of our protagonists act in the heightened manner of characters in a melodrama (indeed there's a measure of mordant humour to be had in imagining the proprietor's private reactions to their continued dramatic confrontations in her cafe) and furthermore do so in a rather gender stereotyped way. The women in this film are often hysterical or prone to changing their minds at the last minute and the men tend to be insensitive to the feelings of the women around them. This first becomes apparent with the near pathological jealousy of the woman, Seh-Hee.

Because her jealousy comes at the start of the film it's isolated from its causes and appears more extreme than it  might otherwise be  (although under just about any circumstances it's far more pronounced than might be considered realistic). We get a hint our first hint of what's causing the concern after an extended outburst. When her long time lover declines her advances because he's been "tired recently"  she correctly diagnoses its cause as being a lack of novelty. However he proves nearly pathologically unable to admit that, yes, that might be it. In another film the woman might not be so devastated; in another film the man might attempt to talk about her fears instead of denying them.

This is not to say that the film has contempt for its characters. When Seh-Hee's schemes are going right she isn't presented as a gloating mastermind - instead she's shown to be falling apart under the strain of lying to someone she loves. The film lingers on her pain in medium and medium long shots; isolating her in the frame to make sure that we focus on her without distraction (and possibly to emphasis her loneliness) but not making a show out of her pain by shoving it into our faces in a close-up.

This kind of visual dexterity is repeated throughout the film. In particular Ki-duk makes excellent use of Mo-do sculpture park to create a variety of visual metaphors. Two of the most stark are the cupped hands - a place constantly reinforced as a place of intimacy - being slowly covered by the tide as time wears on, and the moment when Seh-Hee lies down next to the never-changing, always faithful metal sculpture of a man.

The film also uses to mise-en-scene and dialogue to affirm the primacy of the face in communication and identity. When the characters wish to disappear or become new to one another they change only their faces - despite the opening credits clinically laying out that other body-parts can be altered too. When characters are rejected it is their faces they cover out of shame - and this act becomes particularly disturbing because we gain no facial clues as to how they are feeling. Similarly despite the fact that she attempts to stimulate her partner by asking him to think of another woman's breasts it's her "same, boring face" that she apologises for. And attempting to find Ji-Woo by his hands or familiar turns of phrase proves both frustratingly and dangerously error-prone.

The only curious narrative choice is the looped ending which connects the final scene to the first. This would appear to contradict the film's theme - that despite our best attempts time will erode the possibility of continuing love. This is a film in which things break down rather than continue endlessly unchanged. Perhaps Ki-duk is suggesting that this pattern of relationship entropy is a constant cycle which is always being renewed with new partners.

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