Kim Ki-Duk is a frustrating director. Possessed of a truly original approach, he seemingly can’t resist sabotaging our expectations and his own intentions. A notorious autodidact, his style is an improvisational stutter that creates unconventional conflicts, and then resolves them in unexpected ways. In addition, almost all his characters seem enveloped by a thin layer of antipathy that makes them hard to feel close to.
Time is, on its surface, a socially conscious critique of the obsession with cosmetic surgery. A young couple, Ji-woo and See-hee, experience a ripple of discord when Ji-Woo can’t get it up until he thinks of another woman. Without informing him, See-hee goes off to remake her face and returns months later to seduce him as a stranger.
Kim uses the scenario to riff on identity, the superficiality of modern culture, and, of course, love, but from such an obtuse angle that you’ll find yourself continually shifting your genre expectations. One scene in particular demonstrates Kim’s maddening tendency toward self-sabotage. After masquerading as a new person, See-hee (calling herself She-hee in an absurdist Von Trier-like touch) meets her boyfriend in a café while wearing a mask of her old face, literalizing the metaphorical. Confronted with her creepily frozen paper-doll smile, Ji-woo storms out as she pleads with him from behind her mask. But because he’s either too confident or not confident enough in his abilities, Kim has his main character physically beaten up after being emotionally pummeled, and the tragic comic poignancy veers into absurdity. From there the denouement feels long, and any unreserved accolades for this wayward talent will have to wait until next time.