As a society Korea has been slow to change despite its economic growth. At times it can seem like a gigantic, perpetually simmering pot of discontent that seems dangerously close to boiling over. One aspect of Korean society that is often brushed under the carpet is repressed sexuality and while it isn’t something you will encounter much in TV dramas, music and the news, the Korean film industry, of late, has been vocal in its depiction of the widespread abuse that rages through the country. Truth be told, it is often used opportunistically and many of the works in question tread a very fine line.
Dirty Blood is one such film that exists in dangerous territory. While other 2012 features that examined sex crimes in an aggressive fashion, such as Don’t Cry Mommy and Azooma, did so in a relatively black and white fashion. Director Kang Hyo-jin opts to operate in a grey area, much like Lee Don-ku did with his incendiary debut Fatal, also last year.
A young girl is getting ready to leave as an exchange student for Spain but her terminally ill mother has something to tell her before she does. She discovers that her father was a man who raped her mother, news that quickly throws her life into turmoil. Now she has a new plan, and she seeks out her biological father. Pretending to be someone else she ends up living with him and begins a dangerous sexual game.
Offering a slightly different spin on the traditional revenge formula, Kang’s third film takes a very touchy subject but instead of concocting a thriller around it, he opts to take a much darker route. The central character, when confronted with a serious identity issue, almost loses her grip on reality. She quickly tosses away her innocence and soon allows herself to enter a depraved cycle. It’s a brave move, if perhaps an extreme one, as it highlights some very complicated emotions surrounding sex, especially in a country where in the public sphere at least, it is still a taboo.
Given the acts she begins to engage in on screen, the film also becomes somewhat perverse as we are invited to witness, in a scopophilic way, the desecration of her youthful virtue and virginal body. It’s upsetting to be confronted with her existential crisis, but being subjected to it so frequently pushes the film to an extreme, and this can be viewed in either of two ways.
First of all, it could be that the voyeurism we engage in is designed to implicate us in the girl’s moral downward spiral as it reveals something dark within us: this applies especially to male viewers. Even though we may be appalled by what is unfolding before us, we are compelled to keep watching as some dark pleasure is derived from her slide into iniquity. Though I understand where I think the filmmaker is coming from and I do applaud the complexity he may be trying to convey, I do have mixed feelings about the way in which he’s gone about doing it.
Secondly, the film winds up far too long as a result of the constant drubbing we are subjected to as we behold the protagonist’s corruption. At 130 minutes, our extended witnessing of a sweet girl tossing her life away and throwing herself at all comers is a relentless assault. The point is made early on but the repetition is almost cruel for viewers as well as the character, and by extension the actress who plays her.
I’m also not sure if the conclusion was a successful one, given what had transpired before. Without revealing anything I would say that logically speaking, perhaps it made sense, but I don’t think it followed through on the emotions it explored and developed throughout its running time.
All in all, Kang Hyo-jin’s film is a mixed bag but a compelling one at times. A pertinent issue is being explored, the emotions on display are raw and affecting, and the performances are strong enough to keep it afloat, though the content is bound to turn off many. Lacking balance and in need a polish, Dirty Blood is a flawed but bold work with plenty of merit.
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