Kim Ki-duk’s twentieth film “One to One” feels like listening to the same angry words over and over again in a barren empty class room with no particular interest. I can accept that it is angry about the injustice and inequality which have been accumulated inside South Korean society, and I know well that some of its uneasy parts reflect the dark, seedy aspects of South Korean society, but all it can give us is just a barebone story which repeats its few notes again and again with little variations. Although I can sense from it an urge to remind the South Korean audiences of their unfair reality, the movie becomes more tedious as solemnly trudging along the plot, and I did not care much about it during my viewing.
Its story is about seven people who attempt to execute the justice for the victim of one terrible crime. In the opening scene, a young high school girl is being followed by a bunch of guys during one night, and this poor girl is soon captured and murdered by them in the end. We see one of them reporting to his direct boss, who then reports to the guys above him that the job is done as ordered. The motive behind this heinous crime is not very clear, but, considering that the girl’s name is Min-ju, which phonetically means ‘democracy’ in Korean, I guess this is a symbolic scene of how South Korean democracy is destroyed by the rich and powerful who can get whatever they want through their money and power.
The movie does not tell us a lot about how other six members are assembled and persuaded by their mysterious leader(played by Ma Dong-seok), but they follow his scheme anyway while believing they are doing the right thing. We learn that there are seven guys responsible for that young girl’s death, and the leader and his group are going to confront these bad guys one by one for reminding them of what they did.
Their plan is so simple that it sometimes looks pretty ridiculous. First, they approach to their target when the target is alone, and then they take the target to their secret place by force, and then they begin interrogation under various disguises. They disguise themselves as military guys in the case of one target, and then they pretend as police guys in the other case. I do not understand well the purpose behind this constant change of disguises, but it is certainly one of a few amusing things in the movie; during one scene, they even wear street cleaner uniform.
The leader, who can be quite ruthless at times, is determined to get what he wants by any means necessary, and that makes his accomplices become more doubtful and uncomfortable about their actions as their plan is progressed. Their targets did a very wrong thing indeed, and they do deserve punishment for that, but is it worthwhile to torture them and then force them to write confession? The movie expresses that moral question mainly through one of the group members, but that does not work due to its flat characterization and awkward dialogues strewn over the story. Besides the leader, who turns out to have an understandable motive behind his brutal plan, the rest of the group members are simply defined by each own social hardship presented along the story, and they do not have many things to do except standing awkwardly around their leader or kidnapping their targets as instructed.
Meanwhile, after being tortured and humiliated by them, their first target, Oh-hyeon(Kim Yeong-min), becomes determined to find out who they are, and he soon discovers their secret place as well as their real identities. He initially wants the retaliation for what they did to him and his colleagues, but then he comes to have a doubt growing inside him as watching on them and their activities. His close colleague killed himself because he felt guilt about that murder after his forced confession, and his direct boss, who also had to endure that torturous experience just like them, confides to Oh-hyeon on how he starts to feel guilty about merely following the order from above at that time.
As expected from the start, the movie arrives at the final stage where a guy who ordered the murder from the top is finally brought to face the leader and the other group members, but this ‘climax’ lacks dramatic tension like the other confrontation scenes in the film, and it even becomes very confused about where it should stand. At one point, one supporting character says he does not know what to believe, and I must confess that I had a similar feeling while having no idea about what was the exact point the movie was trying to make.
Such a bland, uninteresting result like this is rather surprising because the works of the director/writer Kim Ki-duk have rarely been boring. His screenplays are not exactly well-written ones(I must point out that his characters are more effective with behaviors rather than dialogues) and his scenes sometimes look contrived and artificial, but they have interesting situations to talk and discuss about, and he usually strikes us hard with striking moments to be remembered. I revisited “The Isle”(2000) recently, and I found myself still cringing at that unforgettable moment involved with fish hooks while observing the contrasting serene beauty encompassing the brutal aspect of its story. “Arirang”(2011) is a rather embarrassing self-portrayal to watch, but it painfully shows the director struggling to get back on his track, and he did return with “Pieta”(2012) and “Moebuis”(2013) while writing several screenplays for other directors as before.
Although his character is merely one-dimensional, Ma Dong-seok is suitably aggressive and brooding as the leader in the film, and Kim Yeong-min deserves some praise for his deft multiple performances as Oh-hyeon and the various minor characters around each group member character in the film. Kim Ki-duk urgently wants to say something to us, and his message is delivered to us as he intended, but this is a dull, repetitious experience which mostly bored me with its ponderous diatribe. Yes, I surely got its point, and I also understood its intention, but, seriously, what else is there besides that?