Kim Ki-duk: “What is family? What are desires? What are genitals?
Family, desires, and genitals are one from the start. I am the father, the mother is I, and the mother is the father. Originally we are born in desire and we reproduce in desire. So we are connected as one like the Moebius strip, thus me envying, hating, and loving myself.”
With a director statement like this, it would be easy to dismiss Moebius as self-indulgent, particularly considering it is entirely absent of dialogue, with little in the way of soundtrack. But it takes only a few minutes to realise you’re watching something very special, the film driven by some superb acting; it really matters not that the characters are not speaking, their raw emotions leading the way so effectively that an extra layer of words would simply weigh down the performance.
In fact there is a certain kind of theatre to the violence here, the physical movements almost dance-like as our actors portray all through the power of facial expression. Lee Eun-woo in her two roles as Mother and Young Woman is especially impressive in this aspect, conveying conflicting emotions with an ease that not once appears affected.
This is apparent in the striking first scene, where, following a physical fight with Father, Mother buttons Son’s school blazer and smiles, at first uncertainly, which gives way to love of both the boy and her actions as she does so. Here, Mother’s comfort in her maternal duties is underlined, while her grimacing, wine-stained mouth reflects her role as the cheated-on, humiliated wife.
Perfectly cast, then, for a film whose intention it is to explore dual identities, and Kim chooses to do so with typically provocative context: Moebius’ driving force coming from Mother’s castration of Son, followed by the swallowing of his penis.
A grotesque comedy? Perhaps, and yet while the film gleefully pushes buttons with delight in some occasional slapstick, there is much to explore. In this instance, Son has been observed masturbating and therefore becoming a man. By emasculating him, Mother believes she is both inflicting revenge on Father/men and taking the boy back as her own, protecting herself/women from further pain.
Of course, this doesn’t quite work and Son’s blossoming sexuality eventually finds solace in masochism, his pleasure in the knife that robbed him of it, Kim’s titular strip having led him to Young Woman, with whom Father had been enjoying an affair.
There is very little to fault in Moebius, save perhaps some hamminess from Cho Jae-hyun as Father (surprising considering that he is by far the most experienced actor here). As previously mentioned, Lee is excellent in her two roles, and Seo Young-ju as Son, while a little stiff at times, puts in a star turn for a rape scene that sees some complex emotions for his character, belying his youth as an actor. But, it is not a film for the lily-livered. Aside from castration and rape, incest and heavy emphasis on some decidedly unconventional masturbation are far from mainstream viewing topics, and the linking of sexual pleasure and violence is shaky ground; if not for a subtext centred on female revenge, the film would simply be an exercise in voyeurism, albeit beautifully shot.
This allows for further exploration of duality, as Young Woman, a victim of rape, feels revulsion at sexual interaction with her attacker, and yet holds power over him in the knowledge that she is his sole source of pleasure. Again, the moebius effect: like Mother, she is hurt by men but ultimately holds control, sexually.
Does the film reflect Kim’s statement? Well, not quite; the characters and their desires are not indistinguishable, running as parallels, as opposed to an extension of the same self. But as a piece of art-house cinema that nevertheless feels accessible, Moebius is a highly recommended watch, and indeed one of the best films of 2014.
Naila Scargill is the publisher and editor of horror journal Exquisite Terror. Holding a broad editorial background, she has worked with an eclectic variety of content, ranging from film and the counterculture, to political news and finance.