Kim Ki-Duk’s Dream (Bi-mong, 2008), which recently screened as part of the 8th New York Asian Film Festival, is a lyrical and melancholy meditation on the theme of doomed love. The film establishes its conceptual premise – Ran (Lee Na-Yeong), a young woman is compelled to act out the dreams of a young man, Jin (Joe Odagiri), whom she has never met – in a simple, straightforward manner. No explanation is sought, and none is provided. It is tacitly accepted in the world of the film that two people can be connected by a dream. The purely stipulative nature of the film’s narrative conceit moves it away from the realm of science fiction – where some technological innovation or disruption of natural law allows for the occurrence fantastic events – and into the domain of the myth or fable – where natural laws are refashioned to suit the emotional and psychological states of the story’s characters.
Early on in the film Jin and Ran are told by a (decidedly non-Freudian) psychiatrist/mystic that they are on opposite ends of a psychic spectrum – Jin’s reoccurring erotic dreams of the ex-lover he pines for, cause Ran to sleepwalk into the arms of the ex-lover she despises – like black and white on the color wheel. She assures them that dreams have the power to change reality, and that if they are able to fall for each other and forget their romantic pasts, all will be well. In its focus on young love as a vital force for change, Dream calls to mind Japanese New Wave films like Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) and Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre (1969) – both lyrical and richly symbolic representations of lovers in peril.
The main body of the film is devoted to documenting Jin and Ran’s developing relationship – which is mirrored in the film’s mise-en-scene. From the first moments of the film Jin is associated with the color black, while Ran almost exclusively wears white. (In a striking fantasy set piece, where Jin and Ran watch their ex-lover’s fight and make love in an open field, their characteristic colors are reversed.) The film also makes strong use of diegetic framing, using the architecture of domestic spaces to unite and divide the young couple within a single composition. Both Jin and Ran are artists, who work from home, often late into the night – she is a fashion designer, who creates fanciful brightly colored confections quite at odds with her own monochrome wardrobe; he chisels blocks of stone into elaborate seals. As such they seem to be quite isolated from other people and alienated from the flow of day to day life. Once they discover the nature of their connection, they enter into a quasi-domestic situation, wherein they live together and sleep in shifts in hopes that if they avoid sleeping at the same time Ran will cease to act out Jin’s dreams. (Ran’s terror at her loss of autonomy brings the dangerous nature of romantic love into sharp relief.) During a relatively tranquil period in their relationship they visit a Buddhist shrine, where they build a tower of stones. Throughout the film, Buddhist imagery seems to be associated with the balanced and tranquil relationship that Jin and Ran seek and briefly establish.
The idyll comes to an abrupt end, when Jin and Ran fall asleep together, and Jin’s dream leads Ran to commit a violent act. Jin, feeling responsible for Ran’s action and her subsequent punishment vows never to sleep again, and begins to torture himself in hopes of staying awake and atoning for his guilt. This section of the film makes overt use of Christian iconography, which seems to stand for the passion, sacrifice, and suffering that marks the Dionysian flip-side to the Apollonian tranquility Jin and Ran find at the Buddhist Shrine. As Jin and Ran’s passion intensifies, so does their shared pain and mutual self-denial. Eventually they enter into a kind of twilight state where the return to a normal autonomous existence is as impossible as life apart – at this point Dream achieves a level of abject desperation that calls to mind David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Ultimately, Dream is a hauntingly beautiful film, and a hauntingly sad one. Relatively restrained in relationship to the rest of Kim’s corpus, it is nonetheless a powerful and unflinching exploration of the physical, spiritual, and psychological cost of all consuming devotion.