Since the coming of sound to motion pictures there have been but a handful of 'silent' movies, where there may be some music and/or sound effects -- much like the early transition films between silents and talkies -- but no (or very little) spoken dialogue. Titles that spring to mind include Aki Kaurismaki's "Jura" (1999), the wonderful nearly dialogue-free Hungarian flick "Huckle" (2002), of course the Oscar-winning "The Artist" from 2011, and the delightful Spanish movie "Blancanieves" from the following year. Also, I can just about recall seeing actor Ray Milland's directorial debut "A Man Alone" (1955) where his Western hero had no dialogue at all for the first half of the film.
However none of these exercises in style prepared me for this new 'silent' film from cult Korean director Kim Ki-duk, which might actually mollify subtitle-hating cinema-goers. He has been a prize-winner in Berlin, Venice, and Cannes, and has given movie-lovers a challenging catalogue of titles, from his early movie "The Isle" (certainly censored here for the painful things the heroine did to herself with fish-hooks), the elegant and elegiac "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...Spring" (2003), the smart "3-Iron" (2004), and more recently the fraught mother/son drama "Pieta" (2012). The above title, his 19th or 20th directorial outing, was actually initially banned in his own homeland and it is not difficult to understand why.
It is not because the film has neither dialogue nor music, but because of its very controversial subject matter. It's not possible to discuss the movie without certain spoilers and a brief summary of the plot: briefly a married couple are at daggers drawn in a loveless marriage, and their teenaged son seems indifferent to both of them. However the wife reaches boiling point when she observes her husband shagging his mistress -- the shopkeeper from across the way -- in his car outside her window. What does she do? Well she tries to castrate him in his sleep, but when he manages to kick her away, she successfully does the same to their sleeping son and eats the cut-off! From then on we have a selection of scenes featuring rape, mutilation, ridicule, sexuality, self-abuse, penis transplants, and incest. There may be no dialogue in this film but there are plenty of gasps and groans of both pain and pleasure.
If the viewer manages to survive the opening horrors, the film continues to pique one's curiosity to discover just where it is going. It is certainly well-acted by the main cast of three. It was not until I double-checked the credits that I realised that the wife and mistress were both played by the same actress, who looks completely different in the two roles, although both characters seemed to flash their substantial embonpoint and tight-knickered crotches with gleeful abandon. I will refrain from any more spoilers regarding the action or denouement, but will quote the director's own words about the film. He said, "We are not free from physical desire for our entire life; we either self-torture, maltreat, or become maltreated -- and in the middle of all this lies our genitals". He goes on to claim that our whole body is a sexual organ and he includes scenes where a climax is reached by vigorous self-abrasion of 'non-sexual' body parts or by the pain of knife-gouging. Behind this is meant to be some sort of Buddhist message that one must try to deny both desire and ego. The action is book-ended by a man kneeling in the street before a spot-lit head of Buddha in a shop window (and a similar head at home hides the knife used to inflict the damage mentioned above); it is suggested that the figure dressed as a monk in the final scene can well smile beatifically for the first time in the movie, since he is now finally free from any sexual urges.
The title presumably refers to the mathematical twisted strip, a loop where time has no beginning and no end -- presumably another Buddhist precept. This film is anything but an easy watch but if you are able to take in shock after shock, you may enjoy this outing from the eclectic Mr Kim.