South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-young, one of world cinema‘s least-known and greatest eccentrics, lived — and died — in a haunted house. Less than six months after his rediscovery at the 1997 Pusan International Film Festival, the creaking Seoul mansion the director had occupied with his wife, Kim Yu-bong (a dentist who had financed many of her husband’s films), burned to the ground, taking both their lives. Kim had often admitted that he loved sharing the house with the wraith of its former occupant, and to some, his tragic end seemed eerily close to the high weirdness that filled his films.
His nickname had been ”Mr. Monster,“ a term of affection for an extremely charming man with a particular passion for the grotesque. Born in Seoul in 1919 and raised in Pyongyang (now the North Korean capital), Kim returned to Seoul and spent the first half of the 1950s writing and producing documentaries for the Bureau of Public Information. When he turned to directing features, he quickly established himself as a pulpmaster who could, a la Sam Fuller, turn the most lurid sex-and-mayhem melodramas into funny, fist-to-the-jaw social satire. Five of ”Mr. Monster“‘s rarely screened gems are being resurrected by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and every one of them is astonishing: They’re fantastically overwrought monster movies about the lusting, foolish beasts we make of ourselves.
The 1960 film The Housemaid — as littered with uncanny doublings as the collected works of Poe — is the director‘s signature work, an excavation of class turmoil and rapid modernization in Korea’s postwar period masquerading as a thriller about an upwardly mobile couple brought low after hiring a live-in domestic. While the country was worrying about the divide between North and South, Kim saw only a world where weak-willed husbands are crippled by breadwinning wives and infantilized by conniving mistresses, and where someone‘s always trying to slip someone a dram of rat poison. He remade the film at least five times, and each version (including 1972’s The Insect Woman, also in the UCLA series) adds new, more outrageous twists.
Given that Korean cinema was already awash in melodrama and sexual violence, Kim quickly found a home in the B-movie fringes of the industry, where he could wallow in the riotous extremities of expressionism. One of the great pleasures of Kim‘s cinema is the sets he designed and decorated himself (they’re as mod and macabre as a Vincent Price rethink of Elvis‘ Graceland), but he well knew that a house is not a home, and his empathy for even the oddest character’s psychology is often as unnerving as the oozing stucco on one of his sets. In the narrative catacombs of his 1975 ”woman‘s film,“ Promise of the Flesh, for example, a murderess’s descent into madness is ”explained“ through convoluted voice-overs, a succession of rococo rape scenes scored to a surging acid-funk soundtrack, and a pathological addiction to hard candy.
Endearing incoherence and jarring juxtaposition run rampant throughout Kim‘s films, and if their titles and topics sometimes seem to suggest a composite of Roger Corman and Shohei Imamura — arguably Japan’s greatest filmmaker, and a master at framing social anthropology in terms of lusty, mud-caked rutting — then so be it. The urban-meets-rural tensions and necrophiliac shamanism of Kim‘s Iodo are as primal and passionate as anything in Imamura’s hormonal art films, while his quota-quickie Killer Butterfly simply teems with drive-in distractions: a blue severed head, the clattering bones of a 2,000-year-old Mongolian virgin, and the manic, sexualized burping of an out-of-control cracker-making machine.
Young Korean filmmakers like Park Ki-hyung, who directed one of the country‘s high-grossing films, the 1998 girls’-school shocker Whispering Corridors, are quick to admit the debt they owe their beloved ”Mr. Monster.“ Grab a glance at a few of these strange, haunting movies and you‘ll see what they see: A walking cadaver or two, the dank smell of love from beyond the grave, a sudden bolt of lightning — Kim Ki-young is alive!