Time heals, but in some cases, it destroys everything. South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk illustrates this with a tragic tale of two lovers and also takes the opportunity to sardonically criticize a contemporary trend. In "Time" (2006), however, he abandons the lyrical/experimental style of "3-Iron" (2004) and follows a conventional mystery/thriller structure with perhaps, much more dialog than any of his other films. Despite a more formalist approach this time, the director ensures that his product stands out nevertheless, and throws a curveball at his unsuspecting audiences with twists that transcend literalism and border on the metaphysical.
Ji-woo's (Jung-woo Ha) girlfriend, Seh-hee (Ji-Yeon Park) is of the extremely jealous type. His amiable behaviour with other women becomes a reason for her to throw childish fits of jealousy. Far too possessive about her boyfriend, she becomes a nervous wreck, paranoid about losing him to some other. A lack of self-esteem about her own looks ("same boring face") burrows its way into her psyche, and in a rather drastic and irrational decision, she goes under the knife in order to get a new face, so as to secure her boyfriend's supposedly dampening interest in her. But at what cost?
With a primary focus on the central character of a whiny, and sometimes unreasonable and difficult woman, Kim Ki-duk examines aspects of jealousy, ennui and growing insecurities in a relationship. Given Seh-hee's temperament, it isn't unconvincing that she takes an impulsive decision and goes to extreme and practically stupid measures to achieve something that she herself isn't in full realization of. The doctor mentions clearly that it will take six months for full recovery. And hence, she disappears from Ji-Woo's life without a word and absconds for six months, comes back with a new face (Sung Hyun-ah), and tries to get close to him with a slightly altered name and identity.
Ji-Woo doesn't seem to be the flirtatious kind. He is simply a normal, handsome fellow who enjoys the attention he gets from other females and sometimes reciprocates by checking them out or engaging in amicable chats with them. His heart still lies with Seh-hee and this is apparent from the very tough time he faces without her. He gets drunk, mourns her disappearance and tries to console himself when another woman tries to seduce him, saying "we are all human". Heartbroken and lonely, he makes several unsuccessful attempts at dating.
Ambiguities abound, in Kim Ki-duk's strange narrative, but not with the intent of perplexing. A lot of events are cut short, information is withheld and an episode thread simply abandoned without explanations, creating more conundrums. For instance, a glass window suddenly breaks in a motel room where Ji-Woo is being seduced by a young girl. Later, a reunion with an old crush of Ji-Woo's goes awkwardly wrong for an unknown reason. Kim Ki-duk lets us fill the blanks in these areas, and the choice of keep things under the veil is a decision that works in rendering an even more mysterious aura to the story and even plugging potential holes.
It's Seh-hee's motivations that are puzzling, and the viewer is baffled just as Ji-Woo eventually is, about the intent of her actions. Seh-hee is possessive about Ji-Woo, doesn't want him to even look at other women and vice versa, and yet, gets herself a new face in the hope of rekindling their relationship. But doesn't this desire, belie her primary concern that Ji-Woo shouldn't get attracted to other women and be in love with Seh-hee forever?
This inconsistency is also in tune with the bizarre sequence involving a mask, used to a very unnerving effect. The new See-hee turns up with a mask of the old Seh-hee and asks Ji-woo to take it off, trying to explain to the best of her abilities why she did what she did. A bewildered Ji-woo is not surprisingly, freaked out when she says that her new self was jealous that he couldn't forget her old self! There is no way to reason with this behaviour. It doesn't make much sense, but knowing that we are dealing with an unreasonable character, anything is plausible.
In a genius move of writing, Kim Ki-duk introduces a diametric shift in the situation in the final half hour of the film and keeps things appropriately fuzzy, and thus manages to maintain an edge and prevents it from succumbing to predictability. If the intelligent final act makes you applaud the director's craft and command over his narrative, the shocking culmination will make your jaw drop.
"Time" is the kind of film that works on many levels thanks to its narrative full of layers that go deeper than those involved in any kind of surface surgery. Despite being a thriller at its core, laced with a doomed romance, soapy melodrama and wry humour, "Time" touches upon existential themes of identity and the loss of it, the relative insignificance of one individual in an ever-growing urban whole, given more emphasis in the haunting final frame. The plot and these themes also evoke memories of two Hiroshi Teshigahara classics, "The Man without a Map" (1968) and "The Face of Another" (1966).
For its central premise, the filmmaker taps the subject of his home country's growing obsession with cosmetic surgery. According to many recent news reports, Seoul in South Korea is a big hub, with an entire district devoted to plastic surgery clinics. If statistics are to be trusted, one in five Korean women opt for plastic surgery, to look younger in a race against time, or simply because they aren't happy with their natural features. Through his characters, who seem to take plastic surgery for granted as an easy tool for morphing into another person, Kim Ki-duk subtly attacks this narcissism in humans and advocates natural and inner beauty, stressing upon the obvious and simple fact of life, that beauty is only skin deep and no matter what you do to your surface, you are the same person within, and nothing can change that.
Kim Ki-duk's absorbing storytelling style, power-packed performances from the lead cast Jung-woo Ha and Sung Hyun-ah, and vivid cinematography are the assets of "Time". Beautiful, poetic images have always been a strong point of Kim Ki-duk films, and "Time" showcases a good number of symbolically rich images. On two separate occasions, both lead characters are shown kicking a huge tree, perhaps venting out their frustration against it because it seems to be eternal, standing the test of time, unfazed, while the rest of them continue to face the effects of the passage of time with their ups and downs. There is an extensive use of mirrors and distorted reflections, even characters filmed from behind glass objects. These distortions directly reflect an artificiality of these characters; that they have ended up becoming warped images of themselves.
A sculpture park by the beach is a location frequently used, and it has a variety of art pieces on display. In one scene, See-hee lies down next to the sculpture of a man and caresses it, insinuating that she gives a lot of weight to the superficial and perhaps, the artificial. One other such sculpture is that of two giant hands with a small staircase like construction that ascends towards the sky but ends abruptly with no concrete shape or destination. Several recurring images with characters sitting within these hands perhaps drive home the final word; that ultimately there are the hands of fate, and no matter what you do, you cannot mess with nature.