Kim Ki-duk’s recent feature, completed in 2013, originally banned in South Korea before being reassessed and then released with cuts, is a 90 minute dialogue free piece seemingly on the nature of sex, desire, and father, mother and son relationships.
It’s title refers to the Mobius Strip, a surface with only one side and only one boundary, it is curved and has homeomorphic qualities- it can continually stretch and bend into new shapes whilst returning to where it has started from. The poster for Ki-duk’s film reads "I am the father, the mother is I, and the mother is the father", the narrative of the film itself returns to the beginning- and gives us the ending the director sets up in the film’s first scenes but takes over 90 minutes to fulfill.
These in between minutes are filled with the ingestion of body parts, masturbation, mutilation for sexual pleasure and gang rape. The story is simple, Oedipal, though not in the way you might think, it is carnal, touches on Freudian and Lacanian theories of object fetish and object relation and the experiences that belong to it- and in this film the object is unrelentlessly and unashamedly the penis (we are so often used to films centering on object fascination in the shape of the vagina and in the most covert of ways, so this is actually a relief).
But to the story. In simple terms, somewhere in South Korea, perhaps it is Seoul, a father, mother and teenage son live together. The film begins with the father taking a call from his mistress, who lives just down the road and works in a shop. An argument (a physical one, seeing as there are no words) ensues between father (Cho Jae-hyun) and mother (Lee Eun-woo). Later the father is caught making love to the woman and the revengeful mother attempts to cut off his phallus whilst he sleeps. She fails and instead and by proxy, mutilates her son (Seo Young-ju) and ingests his member. The mad woman she is and like Rochester’s madwoman in the attic, she flees into the night, at the same time as her son is rushed to hospital. Then for a moment, in the next ensuing minutes and second act, we think we are in for an interesting study on what it means, especially as a teenager, to have such sexually intense feelings with no outlet for relief- we start to question and realize how important and dominant sex is in our lives and especially when those feelings cannot find release. How do they find relief? The answer comes from the guilty father, who spends his time researching the Internet for how a man can achieve orgasm without a penis. In the mean time, the son, released from hospital, is enticed into a gang rape by a group of men who save him from school bullies. But in a strange twist, they choose the woman who is the father’s mistress and played by the same actress who plays the mother. This is where complications come into play. Arrested for partaking in the rape where he can only ‘dry hump’, the son is introduced into how to achieve orgasm by inflicting intense pain on himself- in this case, by pummeling the skin with a rough stone. Meanwhile, the father donates his own penis to his son in a transplant operation. At the same time the mother makes a reappearance back into their lives and Kim Ki-duk introduces his final comic and horrific plot twist. There is also a sub plot involving the head of the gang and the woman he raped and an outrageous sequence that had the audience in the screening I attended, laugh loudly with extreme nervousness- two men chasing a penis down a street and seeing it flattened under the wheels of a truck vehicle.
Reading this it might seem that the film is lewd and vulgar but it is no such thing. Kim Ki-duk’s lack of use of dialogue saves him from having to invent what would surely be absurd dialogue sequences. Neither though is it particularly visual story telling, in that it constantly tells the audience what is going to happen next, it doesn’t, it surprises. There is a distinct lack of music to direct the audience how to feel. One also feels that in some scenes the director has said action just after the characters might have had a conversation. This makes the film highly emotive. In fact it the only way to achieve emotion- it’s almost as though there were a lot of words, and these were said, but all Kim Ki-duk shows us is the emotional detritus left over by those words. The result is some powerful physical performances, it is not like anything I have seen before in film and in theatre, the nearest I can get to in relation to it, is a recent performance of Ubu Roi by Cheek by Jowl, where all the theatrical stage conventions and cultural rules are overturned and where physical movement is used to express the unconscious and its language.
In fact the whole film might be seen as a comment on the unconscious and how its language is not separated from the everyday but is actually part of it, and part of our egotistical and conscious linguistic selves. But one way of reading this film is to take it as a Buddhist parable- although this would be in simplistic terms- i.e. that the penis and pleasure/ pain principle are just effects of our egotistical desires and primal forces, and that the husband acts unconsciously to prevent this and enforce punishment is taken out on him to appease his guilt- this backfires of course when his conscious self cannot go through with the castration and the punishment is taken out on his son. But the twist at the end of the film also has a valid and less crude meaning than it originally appears to have, and is a comment on the nature of sexuality.
The film has come in for some criticism on its treatment of women. They are the punishment takers and givers. But at least its sophistication lies in the nature of object fetishism and its honesty about it- the object of fascination is not really the woman and her vagina, as we might see in Catherine Breillat’s films for instance and especially in Romance. Nor is it the fascination of the other through an object (i.e. the unquantifiable vagina, where pleasure is to be found yet where the person?). It is a tale of primal instincts, and a satire on bourgeois values at the same time but has a Buddhist spiritual ending. It’s so complex you’ll still be trying to figure it out days later.
Moebius has been recently released on VOD markets and was seen for this review at the Korean Film Festival in London.