Review: Address Unknown at TKFF

Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival
Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival

**Warning: Spoiler Alert**

Address Unknown (수취인불명) is set in 1970s small town Korea and focuses on three teenagers, Chang Guk, Ji Hum and Eun Ok. But this isn’t a lighthearted teen movie but rather it’s meant to illustrate the issues, tragedy, betrayal and the new reality that American soldiers are there to stay in the aftermath of the Korean war. The film explores lives of the three teenagers, along with other members of the village. Curious about the title of the film? It comes from the desperate letters from Chang Guk’s mom to his father in America that are returned stamped in red with “Address Unknown”.

  • Release Year: 2001
  • Director: Kim Ki Duk (김기덕)
  • TKFF Theme: Legacy of the Korean War

So what did I think?

Like all of his films, it was complex, violent and showed more of the worst of humanity than the best. I may not always like his films but they are generally extremely well-acted, deep, thoughtful (if quite dark), and just simply quality cinema. However, even without seeing all of his films (I’ve only seen 3 others), I would venture that Address Unknown is his worst. Yeah, I understood what Kim Ki Duk was trying to say but there were too many elements of the film that didn’t live up to his usual high standard. In the end, for me, it was a violent, unpleasant film with some acting that made me want to bang my head against a wall.

What didn’t I like?

I really had problems with the violence against animals and definitely understood why there was a warning at the start of the film, “No animals were harmed…” But even with the warning, I really didn’t need to see the dogs being beaten and killed. Yeah, I know we didn’t actually see it but damn, that was too much.

The bath scene – with Chang Guk and his mom – was too much for me on several levels. I know Kim Ki Duk is known for pushing the limits (although I recently read that he is backing down to pressure on his most recent film and will be changing it so it can be screened in Korean theatres) but that scene was just a little too disturbing for me. It wasn’t the only scene I disliked – the death of Chang Guk was completely unbelievable – but it was the only one I couldn’t watch.

I totally agreed with Professor Janice Kim (she was a member of the panel afterwards) about one thing – Kim Ki Duk could have, and should have, found a better actor for the American role of Sergeant whatever his name was. He was a fairly major secondary character and had a lot of time on screen and was pathetically bad. This really brought down the quality of the film. I’m not saying the acting was all bad, it wasn’t, but the quality of the American actors was abysmal… and I did a quick look on iMDb just to make sure Mitch Malem was an actor – he is apparently, just not a good one.

My final major issue was with the sub-titles. Don’t sub-title the English is you aren’t going to do it properly. While I’d rather English in any foreign language film not be sub-titled with English in general, it’s particularly distracting when the subs say something completely different than what the actor is saying. Bad translations suck and show a limited budget (in this case, the rest of the subs seemed fine) but there is no excuse for bad English on English subs – just leave them off. The English on English subs were ridiculously bad in Address Unknown, almost like it was on purpose but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it could be other than to annoy the crap out of any English-speaking audiences.

Wait, there was one other thing I couldn’t understand. What was up with the girl’s intimate encounters with her puppy? If you haven’t seen the film, I’m not spelling it out but man, was that unnecessary. Self-pleasuring is one thing but seriously, puppy-pleasuring (um, I guess I am spelling it out), what the?

What was good about the film?

However for all its faults, and yeah, there were a lot for me, it was a thought-provoking and interesting glimpse into a dark period of Korean history. But while I understand the point that Kim Ki Duk was trying to get across, I just don’t think he did it particularly well.

While the American actors all seemed horribly bad, there were some decent performances by several of the Korean actors.

Bonus point of the screening at TKFF

The Toronto Korean Film Festival followed the screening of Address Unknown with a panel discussion. I think this was a fabulous idea – I love learning new things – and that this film was the perfect film to start a discussion. For all that I didn’t like the film; it did make you think once you got past the ridiculous parts. So allowing for some Q & A was a great idea. One of the questions raised actually helped spawn a new idea for a research article.

Have you seen Address Unknown? What did you think of it?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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