Judge Joel Pearce thinks "Bad Guy" is such a bland title. He suggests "Naughty Dude" or "Rotten Hombre".
The not-so-classic story of pimp meets girl.
I wanted to like Bad Guy, but now that I'm finished I just feel like I need a shower. It is stark and hideously beautiful, but I simply couldn't get past the nature of the story. Life Size Entertainment has released the film on a solid DVD, so you can decide for yourself whether it's art or misogynistic crap.
Facts of the Case
Hang-ki (Jae-hyeon Jo, The Isle), a mute pimp, crosses the path of a pretty college girl and roughly kisses her. Sun-hwa (Won Seo, The Isle) is unimpressed and tries to force him to apologize publicly.
He does not.
Instead, he manipulates her into a life of prostitution, watching her descent into the life through a one-way mirror in her room. She gradually adjusts to her new life, as he struggles to survive the violence of the streets. Gradually, she comes to depend on the life and on him as they form a strange bond.
It's interesting to chart the development of Kim Ki-duk as a director. He first gained international attention with The Isle, an unpleasant film about obsession made famous because it had critics scrambling for the exits and reaching for the barf bags during several graphic self-mutilation scenes. Several years later, he made Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring and Samaritan Girl, both carrying on the themes of sexual obsession, but giving his characters a chance for redemption. Bad Guy has an odd place between these groups of films, and isn't likely to appeal to many viewers.
Which isn't to say Bad Guy is without merit. In fact, it's brilliantly designed, with murky ideology submerged in a grisly, dark setting. When Sun-hwa is dragged into her life of prostitution, she is also brought into a world that operates under completely different rules. She has her place in the local hierarchy and so does Hang-ki. He destroys her and then recreates her, and although she never comes to enjoy her new life, she begins to put on the costume and live out her role. She is introduced to the underworld of sex, which is never about affection but is often about power or money.
Kim Ki-duk claims that this film is about the class inequalities in Korea. Few people ever see the failed lives that play out in the underworld, and all we truly understand of them is in the simple representations of films. A film either shows these characters as darkly evil, or else creates them as sad victims of unfortunate circumstances, only acting wrong because they have never known better. If nothing else, Bad Guy allows its characters to be fully evil but also distinctly human, and we are forced to take this perspective. We often witness Sun-hwa's new life through Han-ki's eyes, watching her misery with the reflection of his dull stare filling the screen. Whether we have any sympathy for him or not, we must become him as we watch the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the film ultimately fails to create this world for the audience. Hang-ki is, after all, a very bad guy, and his actions can't be justified or explained away. He doesn't deserve our sympathy, and he definitely doesn't deserve our support. The rules of the world also begin to break down. What starts as a gritty, realistic depiction of the red light district soon breaks down as Hang-ki survives several fatal injuries, and a bizarre, unexplained lapse in space-time is introduced. By the end of the film, everything has become so symbolic that it's no longer clear what any of it is supposed to represent.
Sun-hwa's character is not as developed as Hang-ki's. Bad Guy is distinctly misogynistic, never allowing her to become more than an object. In the first scene, the camera lingers over her, following Hang-ki's gaze. In the end, we know precious little more about her, simply that she has developed affection for her captor, and has accepted her role as his prostitute. Why does she choose to stay in this horrible life? We don't get to find out. Perhaps we aren't supposed to understand. After all, she is now part of this other world that operates with completely different rules.
But I don't buy that. It may be true that in Korea's red light district, some women have been torn from their lives for so long that they accept their lives as prostitutes. But that doesn't make it acceptable. Watching Sun-hwa forced into this life against her will, abused physically, mentally, and sexually, is something that I can't forgive by the end of the movie. These scenes are horrible to watch, and Hang-ki does nothing to deserve any kind of redemption. At the end, he is still a pimp, he has still destroyed her life, and he still owns her in a way that repulses me.
The disc is well-produced, with a clean anamorphic video transfer that has little noticeable dirt. The sound is solid as well, with the choice between a stereo track and a surround track that adds the slightest amount of depth. In either case, the music is mixed well with the dialogue and ambient noise. There are a few extras, the most valuable being an interview with Kim Ki-duk, which almost explains what he was trying to accomplish with Bad Guy. There is also a production featurette, which seems more like a music video and a photo gallery. The theatrical trailer is also included.
If you are looking for a harrowing and controversial film experience, Bad Guy may be an appealing choice. I'm sure there are others who are able to view it as a love story, and some who would argue that some of my accusations here are unfair. There are others who would not be able to see any value in it at all, though, instead finding it repulsive, cruel and pointless. Either way, it's by far the weakest of Kim Ki-duk's films I have seen to date.
Even Kim Ki-duk doesn't have immunity in my courtroom. Bad Guy is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Life Size Entertainment
• Interview with Director
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