Sydney Underground Film Festival: One on One (South Korea, 2015)

Oh you like Korean cinema? Me too! You like violent Korean cinema? Yes please, me too! Have you seen any of Kim Ki-Duk‘s films? Me neither. When I read that he had directed 20 features and had received the Cannes Lion a couple of years back, I felt like I might be missing out on something good. Some of my favourite films from Korea have already been adapted so they’re hardly the avant garde. I was hoping for the new new thing, or an old new thing that I missed when it was a new new thing. It was great to pick this one out of the program guide not knowing anything about it. Thank you SUFF – the pleasure I got flicking through the program gave me those feels that I once got in comic book shops and record stores.

One On One opens strongly, right in the middle of the action; a murder that triggers the episodes of revenge. It’s a visually well crafted film – even the blown out overexposed windows in the daylight interior scenes seems like part of the aesthetic. The sustained level of violence in the film is demanding to watch, but even if you can get past that, the actual torture scenes are still repetitive. Each time, the torturers dress in a different kind of official uniform (soldier, police, intelligence officer) and then argue about how much they should hurt the murderers. It’s a clumsy analogue of the Stanford Prison Experiment that shows how we can lose a feeling of responsibility for our actions when we put on a uniform. The murderers say they were just taking orders, and the revenger torturers wind up behaving the same way. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind etc. The problem with it all, clever as it is, and as important a theme as it is, is that it becomes really… really boring. We don’t really have anyone to care about or identify with. We just have to put up with looking at it. It was dull. My friend fell asleep. My other friend didn’t want to look at all.

There were considered back stories for the characters that gave a context to the dissociation that led them to the violence: corrupt government, the spectre of the Communist North for the South, lack of work opportunity for a spoiled youth, senior citizen poverty, domestic violence. All worthy topics. Perhaps it would be stronger for a Korean audience, but it still wouldn’t be great. It was indulgent and clumsily pedagogic. This was a very frustrating film to watch.

Two stars… narrowly avoiding a one star rating by engaging with gritty material and being shot well.


One on One screened as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival


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