Review: Kim Ki-duk’s “Real Fiction”

Real Fiction, shot in 200 minutes (after extensive rehearsals) using ten 35mm cameras and two DV camcorders, was conceived by Kim Ki-duk as an experiment, and it’s not an entirely successful one. The skeletal-thin plot concerns a taciturn (as per the case of most of Kim’s protagonists) street portrait artist (Ju Jin-mo), who is known only as “I” in the credits. His work is often insulted by his customers (a man criticizes his accuracy in rendering a photograph, and a woman tears and discards his work after she leaves him), and is shaken down periodically by a trio of petty criminal thugs. He is visited by a young woman (Kim Jin-ah) shooting a video camera. After the artist finishes her portrait, she tells him she has no money for it. “Can I pay you another way?” she says. She leads him to a theater, where a young man, an actor in a play, sits on a bare stage. This leads to a long, bizarre scene in which the actor, while punching and kicking the artist, seems to have psychically picked up on the artist’s tragic story, and his vengeful grievances toward everyone who has wronged him. Thus begins his mission of revenge which continues for the rest of the film, in which the man exacts murderous payback towards all the people who have hurt him. This begins with the actor who has awakened the artist’s rage, when he shoots (and perhaps kills) the actor with a prop gun that turns out to have live bullets.


“I” stalks the streets thereafter, confronting and murdering figures from his past and present: a girlfriend who has been cheating on him, having sex with her lover on top of the flowers she sells in her shop; a fellow former marine who beat him up during their military service; a man who married and then abandoned a woman he loved (who is now the unhappy owner of a comic book shop); the detective who tortured him during interrogation. The young woman with the video camera follows him throughout, and scenes of the young man on his murderous rampage alternate with what seem to be surreptitious shots from the woman’s camera. She remains mostly unseen until the conclusion, when the artist seemingly confronts his video stalker and makes her his last victim … or perhaps not, as the last scenes indicate, making us question all that has come before, and expressing the contradictory sense of the film’s English title. In the end, as I say, the experiment, however diverting, doesn’t quite work. There is a vaguely articulated attempt to say something about the ambiguous nature of artistic representation, and artifice vs. reality, and whether there is a real difference between the two. Maybe, but exactly what is being said is never quite clear, making this a rather diffuse and imprecise work, very much an oddity among Kim’s often exceedingly odd (and perverse) oeuvre.