Jan 5, 2010

The Most Overlooked Movie of 2009: Exhausted

It's the one nobody told you about. The one you missed. The one you may never get to see. Yes, even in this age of Netflix Instant Watch and streaming everything, there are films that lurk in the shadows. The Most Overlooked Movie of 2009 is one of them.

Developed in the his bathtub, South Korean director Kim Gok's Exhausted, which went quietly into the Dutch night after a World Premiere in Rotterdam (it had its US debut at the Syracuse International Film Festival of all places), was the most unforgettably terrifying narrative film I glimpsed in 2009. I counted fifteen walkouts at the P&I screening I first caught it at; I had just seen the brutal and brillant Tony Manero (not sure how that didn't land on more best of 09' lists) and thought there was no way I was going to get anything more readily stocked with human cruelty than that, but two hours later the world looked a little different. Exhausted is auteur cinema that stretches the limits of decency about as far as I care to stomach, reimbuing the term horror film with potency and sacrilegious inventiveness. It was certainly too much for most serious festival audiences outside of typically adventurous outposts in the aforementioned Dutch port city and Kim's homecountry turf at Pusan. While transcending the level of porn (it does not hope in any way to arouse or titillate; heavens help those that it does) or snuff cinema (with its sublime trash aesthetic and lack of actual death), it maintains the stench of the merely profane. Gutter Cinema was avant-gardist and IFFR stalwart Kevin Jerome Everson's preferred moniker after seeing Gok's painful, essential film, but it's an oddly graceful if ultimately unforgiving gutter.

An unnamed pimp and prostitute/girlfriend live and work in a dive apartment where men on the outskirts of a destitute, unnamed, post apocalyptic South Korean city come to have sadomasochistic sex with the flaccid, semi-retarded woman at the film's center. They have a domestic routine of sorts, eating cheese sticks and porridge, attempting to fetch new bowls and silverware, taking walks along a dirt and industry strewn beach that inevitably turn into yelling matches and fights. They occasionally go and hang signs that read "We have girl". These excursions lead, of course, to more chases and hysterics, which play in a madcap, outrageous way in Gok's gauzy, wide compositions. Eventually a homely young woman takes notice of the prostitute's powerlessness and after one of many escape attempts on the part of the whore, rescues her from her provisional refuge among trashed tires on a beach, but she too has intentions for the young woman that prove to be the most degrading and disturbing of all.

The first spoken line of the film is "You have a lot of shit in your stomach", a line which pays off quite unexpectedly, at a moment late in the picture, once your stunned mind has been convinced that this terrifying film can't get any more horrifying. It pretty much sums up what's on display here. This is the dirt cinema we've been looking for since Paul Morrissey; A by product of not just Morrissey but of filmmakers as varied as the Kuchar brothers and Takashi Miike, Exhausted exists on its own plane of depravity in the annals of modern narrative cinema, but unlike anything else that might fit that description, it is not without its share of plainly expressed truths about codependency and that small desire for self-destruction that exists in many of us.

The desperate inarticulateness of the characters and the rough, gauzy Super 8mm images make the surroundings seem as threatening for this woman in peril as they did for Monica Vitti in Red Desert, of which this is some sort of perverse remake, another film of sexual malice amidst the ruins of modernity. Yet where the green clad temptress of Antonioni's filmic universe could find some small salvation in her child, the only children in the land Exhausted share the color of Ms. Vitti's jackets, one which expresses a small oasis of hope in the cesspool of the industrial West in that film, but only affirms life's passing and pain in Gok's uncompromising picture. It has a visual rigor, a representational courage and a discomforting amorality that are rare even in these nihilistic times.

The test of watching it certainly seems like no mere empty provocation; I've glimpsed the entire thing once in a cinema and two or three times on a screener in the last year and I've yet to come to full terms with its mix of the grotesque and the sublime, the deranged with the even more deranged. It is truly the bleakest film I have ever seen.