TIFF Review: Kim Ki Duk’s The Net (그물)

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

There’s just something about Kim Ki Duk (김기덕) films that’s impossible not to watch. Oh, I haven’t liked many of them and a couple I strongly disliked – namely Address Unknown (수취인불명) and  Stop (스톱)  – but there have been some gems – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) was stunning and Pietà (피에타) for all its darkness, was a superbly crafted and acted film. He can be counted on to push boundaries and make you uncomfortable. Even films that made me want to go home and shower afterwards – Pietà (피에타) and Moebius (뫼비우스) – had such amazing acting and stories that were so far beyond the norm that it was impossible not to watch. So I was expecting something interesting with The Net (그물) despite how ridiculously bad I found the last film of his (that I watched), Stop (스톱), was.

Synopsis

A North Korean fisherman’s boat breaks down and he drifts across the DMZ into South Korean waters where he is picked up by the South Koreans and brought in for questioning. They try to determine if he’s a spy and when that fails, to get him to defect. All the while, the fisherman just wants to return to his family in North Korea.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

My Thoughts

This was probably the most normal Kim Ki Duk film I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was almost bland. So much so, that I wondered if the director wasn’t Kim Ki Duk, would it being playing at major film festivals? Yes, it was an interesting premise and I was intrigued to see how he would deliver on it but other than Ryoo Seung-Bum’s (류승범) performance as the North Korean fisherman – which was good – The Net was… kind of blah and oddly preachy.

Okay, The Net wasn’t bad and like I said, the story has promise but it just doesn’t deliver like one might expect (especially if you’re familiar with his films) and it ends up coming across as preachy. And by that I mean, it’s a vehicle for the director to sermonize about the evils of consumerism and how we are all products of the ideology we grew up in. Now both or either of those points have some truth and could make for an interesting film but they didn’t in this case. For me, it mostly fell flat.

So what did happen?

The film starts in North Korea where we meet the fisherman, who’s the focal point of the film, and his family. After breakfast, and some frisky business with his wife, he sets out to catch some fish with his little boat.

And that’s where things go wrong. His fishing net gets caught in the motor and while he tries to paddle to North Korean shore with his hands, it’s futile and he quickly drifts to South Korea. And this is the first time I roll my eyes wondering why he doesn’t have a paddle? Sure, I understand North Korea is a poor country but he has a boat & motor and fishes in border waters… you think he would have a paddle for just this situation.

While it becomes increasingly obvious that the net in the motor is a metaphor for the fisherman’s situation – in both Koreas – I still disliked the impracticality of the situation. But perhaps I was expecting too much…

The South Korean border patrol take him to Seoul for questioning and assign him a handler who is unbelievably naive, sweet but oh so naive (my second eye roll of the film). Unfortunately he’s also assigned to be interrogated by another operative who’s convinced that every North Korean is a spy and is more than willing to make things up to support his claim. They also try repeatedly get him to deflect but all the fisherman wants to do is return to his family who he’s growing increasingly concerned about.

In one last ditch to get him to see the wonders of capitalism, they dump him in the middle of Seoul among all the neon lights, stores and people. Even that doesn’t work, although he does save a prostitute from being beaten, although the scene’s primary purpose is more about moralizing about the sins of the modern world and capitalism than to advance the story.

The is a tangent with a real spy but it doesn’t really lead anywhere (other than another eye roll, this time at the unexpected naivety from the fisherman) and eventually the is returned to North Korea, only to be made to do the exact same thing – write out everything that happened – during his interrogation there.

The film, which had such promise, squandered in with one-dimensional characters, simplistic and preachy story-telling, and storylines that seemed to have little point.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Final Thoughts

One of the most normal Kim Ki Duk films I’ve seen but also one that lacks anything special to make it stand out. I expected more from the film and there were some tangents that just didn’t make sense. It might have been better if it lost some of the preaching and fleshed out some characters more, or at least made them more realistic, namely the young South Korean agent. Ultimately, I found it lacking despite the strong performance by Ryoo Seung-Bum.

Have you seen The Net? 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 on the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival. 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.

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