Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Insect Woman

Before you ask, no, this is not a sci-fi movie about some half bug/half human woman. Nor is it a remake of Shohei Imamura's 1963 film of the same title. No, this film is a bizarre world of obsessive desire and psychological torture teeming with rats and the odd vampire baby. Getting interested? Bear in mind the only available print looks as if it was left out in the sun all summer and then taken for a drag around the parking lot, as well as having huge Spanish subtitles seared into it. But even with all that, you won't be able to take your eyes off this gloriously, deliriously weird and wonderful movie.

The Insect Woman (1972) was directed by Kim Ki-young, the Korean cult auteur who gave us The Housemaid. Here, a dozen years later, he revisits the central theme of that picture, namely a middle-aged man's adultery with an unstable young woman and the subsequent destruction it wreaks upon them and the man's family. Both films were based on true crime incidents and work well as a set; The Insect Woman, to use a cliche, is like The Housemaid on acid.

And so we have Myeong-ja (Yoon Yeo-jeong), a 19-year-old girl who's recently lost her father and isn't taking it well at all. Now she's forced to work as a bar hostess and is quickly tricked/forced into prostitution by two very unsavory women. Being a virgin, she of course falls madly in love with the man who violently deflowered her, Dong-shik (Namgung Won). His industrialist wife Soon-jo (Jeon Kye-hyun) wears the pants in the family and, soon after learning of the affair, puts Myeong-ja on salary as her husband's concubine. But don't get the idea she's anywhere near pleased about having to share her husband; castrating bitch that she is, she drugs him and arranges for a quick vasectomy (OK, not quite castration, but not as far as Dong-shik is concerned ... ). Dong-shik's teenage son and daughter are a perverse pair; he's a strict Buddhist who eats only honey, while she spends her time playing piano and breeding rats.

Things take a bizarre turn at around the one-hour mark when Dong-shik finds a baby in the refrigerator of the house he's sharing with Myeong-ja. The couple are overjoyed that they can raise some kind of baby together, but things soon turn from bad to worse as psychosis, razor blades and hordes of white rats bring about the deaths of several of the main characters. Oh, and did I mention the baby's a vampire?

As in The Housemaid, a two-story house is used to symbolize the dichotomy between the more stable world of the ground floor and the neurotic emotional hothouse of the upper chambers (Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray were known to use this symbolic device as well). And of course, this being 1972, the sex scenes are a bit more interesting. One memorable moment finds Dong-shik making love with Myeong-ja on a glass table covered with multicolored candies ... shot from below.

The Insect Woman can be had as part of a region-3 box set. The box contains four films and an informative booklet in Korean and (wonkily translated) English. For fans of Korean cinema, this is a very cool edition to your film library. Kim Ki-young's films were a big influence on contemporary directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho; it's a shame so many of them have been completely lost or only exist in diminished capacity (another of the films in the box, Goryeojang -- considered by some critics to be Kim's masterpiece -- has whole reels missing, leaving us in the dark with only the soundtrack). However, such is the strength of Kim's cinema that even with these hindrances, one can still become utterly absorbed, captivated and amazed.


Phantom of Pulp said...

Glad you enjoyed this, Patrick. The vampire baby was a revelation (to put it mildly).

Patrick Galloway said...

Thanks again for the tip, POP.