If you had to sum up a typical Kim Ki-duk film, perhaps for some kind of ‘make your own Kim Ki-duk film at home!’ set, the typical sort of ingredients you’d be including would be: an unpleasant anti-hero whom you might not even like very much by the end of the film who is probably very violent towards women; women who don’t do very much to defend themselves; cruelty and poverty and injustice but also a quality of spiritual acceptance. Obviously, not all of his films have all of these elements but it’s fair to say his major preoccupations so far have been with the violent underworld of those trapped at the lower end of society. In this respect, Crocodile (aka A-go), his first film effectively provides the key elements for much of his subsequent work.
‘Crocodile’, as he’s called by the old man and small boy that occupy the same stretch of river notable only for being a popular spot for committing suicide, ekes out a meager existence fleecing the bodies of the aforementioned suicides and peddling various things in the market place. Although it’s clear the three of them have formed a cohesive unit, it’s also clear that Crocodile is someone more feared than loved. One evening he spots a woman being hassled in an alleyway and in an unexpected fit of chivalry scares off her attacker. However, things being as they are, Crocodile thinks he’s earned something - after all, it’s only fair isn’t it? The lady not being as appreciative as he’d have liked, Crocodile proceeds to attempt to rape her himself but is scared off by another white knight.
Frustrated, he returns home ever more bad tempered. In another fit of uncharacteristic heroism, when a young woman jumps from the bridge Crocodile jumps in and manages to revive her. However, again and possibly because of his failed attempt earlier in the evening, Crocodile also feels he’s owed a reward - and this one’s in no fit state to refuse. Despite the protestations of the young boy Crocodile proceeds to rape the woman he’s saved from the water only moments before. Though she wakes up and tries to resist him, she subsequently does not leave and is repeatedly raped by him as long as she remains part of the group. Something about this woman begins to change Crocodile, as the boy puts it ‘there’s something wrong with him, he’s being nice’, and a different side of Crocodile begins to emerge.
Like his namesake, Crocodile is only really happy underwater. In the deep, pure blue water at the bottom of the river Crocodile has created his own, silent world. Complete with a regency style two-seater and a picture hanging on an underwater wall, Crocodile conjures the kind of middle class bliss he’s been forever excluded from. A violent street rat, he finds himself at the bottom of the pile with no hope of salvation. Though we don’t get an awful lot of information about Crocodile’s previous life, we get the impression that he’s someone who’s had to become hard in order to adapt to life on the street and that all of his anger perhaps stems from having been deeply hurt and abandoned in the past. Through his relationship with Hyun-jung, the woman he plucked from the water (his realm, after all) shades of the person he might have been begin to shine through. Had fate dealt him a less harsh hand he might have been a good, kind man but it didn’t so he isn’t - Crocodile is a product of a society that has failed, and is still failing, to care for those least able to take care of themselves.
Like many of Kim’s films, Crocodile deals with difficult themes and features leading characters who are largely unsympathetic yet still manages to make us care about their fate and forces us to consider the circumstances that led them into their present predicaments. Although far from perfect, this debut film from a now world-class filmmaker is extremely strong and an excellent indicator of his future potential. It is therefore a shame that Terracotta have presented it in a disappointing non-anamorphic DVD transfer. Presented alongside Arirang (which we previously reviewed on its theatrical outing) these two films neatly bookend a career so far demonstrating the two extremes of this divisive director. Crocodile falls victim to many of the problems that plague debut features such as low production values and a lack of polish but makes up for these with an intense and uniquely artistic vision. Not quite a classic then, but certainly very impressive and not to be missed by those interested in modern Korean cinema.
Korean with English subitles. Trailers for this film and other Terracotta releases.