Tartan Video // 2001 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // March 17th, 2006
Innocence is a casualty of war.
While many things can be said of Korean bad boy director Ki-duk Kim, he can never be accused of passivity. Address Unknown is a bleak, harsh look at postwar South Korea. Echoes of pain and suffering ripple through the youth generation. Never subtle, polite, or pleasant, it also lacks the meticulous structuring of his more recent efforts.
In a small community near an American military base, we are introduced to three outcasts, still suffering in the aftermath of the Korean war.
Eunok (Min-jung Ban) lost an eye in a childhood homemade firearm accident, and is ashamed of her deformity. She has secrets as well, some of them dark, but her beauty has caught the eye of a number of local men, including an American soldier stationed nearby.
Jihum (Young-min Kim, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring) is a shy loner who is picked on by local thugs and ignored by everyone else. He has an unspoken obsession for Eunok, and secretly watches her through a hole in her window.
Chang-guk (Dong-kun Yang, Fighter in the Wind) is the bitter, angry son of an American soldier. He helps his mom's boyfriend buy and slaughter dogs for a local restaurant. He hates the work, but no-one else will hire him.
As their lives intersect, the situations the three outcasts have grown up in become unbearable, pushing them into desperate, futile action.
My mixed feelings for Ki-duk Kim make it very hard to review his films. On one hand, he is a brilliant visionary and bold creative force, refusing to let anything stand in the way of his vision. This has made a few of his films as edgy and exciting as films get, and has put him on my "directors to watch" list. At the same time, his stubbornness sometimes make his films unpleasant to watch and frustratingly obtuse. He is a director that makes films for himself, with no regard for the desires or tastes of his audience. Self-serving directors have created some of the best films in the past century, but they also make a lot of movies that just don't hold together as well as they should.
While Address Unknown is not a complete disaster, it doesn't rank among Kim's best work. The best parts of his films are touching moments between characters, quiet moments in which he provides us a window into their souls. That's one of the reasons that 3-Iron was so incredible, as well as the reason that Coast Guard was such a disappointment. In theme and style, Address Unknown is more like the latter, launching quickly into full activism mode, using the characters as an opportunity to advance his political agenda.
Of course, he does manage to include his signature touches. There is deviant sexuality, in this case involving both bestiality and voyeurism. There is disturbing, unexplained violence, particularly against animals (there is a note at the beginning that no animals were harmed, but PETA members are advised to steer clear). The characters all face horrible anguish, which would be tragic and poignant if it wasn't all so pathetic.
Of course, that's the point. This is a world of suffering and sorrow, still reeling in the aftermath of the war. Jihum suffers because he is weak, because he can't live up to his washed-up war-hero father's expectations. Chang-guk suffers because he has been left behind, like so many foreign children in all of the countries where America has fought. Eunok is a stand-in for Korea itself: she has been ravaged by war, and is now left half blind and self-conscious. She is useless to her fellow Koreans, and taken advantage of by Americans who promise to make everything better. All three actors give impressive performances, though they intentionally kept the audience at emotional arms' length, perhaps to keep us from reacting too violently to the spectacle of the characters subjection to increasingly humiliating circumstances. And these circumstances are no more subtle than the films' themes. Address Unknown takes every opportunity to smash us over the head with the unpleasnt fact that the American military base is nearby, and that the characters' lives are analogous to those of the dogs that they abuse. After a while, it becomes tiring and no longer has the impact that it should.
The film also suffers from some truly terrible performances by the actors playing American soldiers. I know I've complained about it before, but Asian studios have a very hard time finding American actors who can deliver a half-decent performance. The American soldier who lusts after Eunok has an important place in the plot, but the actor's performance is so cartoonish that it's distracting every time he's on screen. This bizarre portrayal may be the way that Koreans see the American soldiers stationed there, but it still doesn't line up with the rest of the film.
All of these shortcomings could be forgiven if it weren't for the film's unnecessarily long running time. I found myself riveted by Address Unknown's stark feel...for a while. This fascination gradually disolved into apathy as my senses dulled to the violence and anguish. This apathy eventually gave way to boredom, as I waited for the tedium to finally reach the tragic end promised from the first frame. By the time it finally arrives, it's almost completely ineffective. This is another lesson that Kim has learned in the past few years, and his most recent films have been more concise and polished.
This is not Tartan Video's best offering, but I suspect they didn't have much to work with. The video transfer is drab and ugly, with some source print problems. The washed out look could well be intentional, but it's not a DVD you'll use to show of your spiffy new TV. The sound is lousy, too, whether you go with the Dolby 5.1 or DTS track. Both tracks sound fuzzy and flat, with little use of the surrounds. A slight hiss runs through the entire film, and everything sounds soft. There are several special features, including an introduction by and interview with Ki-duk Kim, recorded especially for this release. As always, he is a surprisingly pleasant interviewee, discussing his goals with clarity and calm.
It's getting increasingly difficult to recommend Ki-duk Kim's films. His movies are never complacent, but even the most passionate examples can be dull. Address Unknown is one such film, an explosive concept made dull by a director still learning his craft and working out the kinks. Fans of the director will still want to check it out, but this one is not necessary viewing.
For failing to deliver what they promised, all involved in the making of Address Unknown are sentenced to a week-long self help seminar.
Review content copyright © 2006 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Korean)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Interview with Director
* Introduction by Director