It’s tempting to characterise One on One as a film that is highly uncharacteristic of its director, South Korea cinema giant Kim Ki-Duk. It’s also likely that most people will watching the film will do so as his cult followers. Despite this, the oddball auteur of modern Korean cinema has gone through many drastic aesthetic transitions – from becoming his own cinematographer, moving from film to digital cinema, and leaving evocative landscapes for more claustrophobic and campier spaces, camerawork and scenarios. One on One – which Kim has claimed to be based on a recent and unreported incident 1 – definitely follows these trends. Although the film drops Kim’s most notable aesthetic trademark – his knack for silent drama in which dialogue between characters is either one-way or totally absent – it’s still worth asking if Kim is trying something new. The trouble with One on One is that rather than being an innovative work, it ends up functioning purely as an exercise for its director.
One on One‘s differences from Kim’s other films stem from how the director writes his characters. Instead of the bizarre outsiders that render themselves and each other invisible to the purview of others – remove themselves to the outskirts of society -, we have two opposing teams of individuals that are trapped in the system, one as its perpetrators and the other as its victims. The latter, a group of nameless “Shadows” of various working-class backgrounds, abduct intelligence agents of ever-increasing rank and socioeconomic status. Passing themselves off as a secret government agency of justice, they torture their captives into writing testimonies concerning the murder of a young woman carried out the year before. As their first subject starts to seek out their identities and targets and learns how his colleagues and higher-ups react to their treatments—including guilty acceptance and suicide—the line of official duty and right and wrong dissolves, making way for another black-and-white dichotomy towards how all of these people face responsibilities for their actions.
One on One still has many other traits of Kim’s filmography. There are his torturous depictions of violence, as well as elements of absurdism (some wear uniforms with “U.S. Army” patches), Christianity (themes of guilt and revenge) and Buddhism (self-isolation and meditation by a character simply known as the Leader) that guide us through the film’s moral questions concerning the nature of power, authority and justice, as well as spiritual well-being. Kim unfortunately is too lenient concerning any of these things, as his entire narrative structure and ordering of scenes is conveyed in such a simplistically organised pattern. We watch the target leave someone that they hold at an emotional distance, get picked up and physically tortured in some fashion. We then watch them grapple with paranoia and also switch to the Shadows as one of them discusses their motives with their “Leader” (Ma Dong-Seok)—boredom, an outlet for frustration, revenge—before watching that one go back to their oppressive lifestyle, unrewarding day-job, or state of economic stagnation or squalor. As this formula makes each subsequent scene more and more repetitive and redundant, the Shadows evoke less sympathy and more caricature with their at times masochistic submissiveness to their employers, landlords and relatives; the only real narrative buildup for them is their growing discomfort with their leader’s methods. It’s their targets that show much more character diversity in their attitudes towards their captors and the crime they committed. The Shadow Leader, then, is the only exception to either of these categories, but he is also pretty predictable, giving away his motives before revealing them to others and answering his subordinates’ questions the same way (don’t let yourself be deceived by the dogs of capitalism or manipulated by money).
Visually, Kim doesn’t try anything that is particularly striking. He opts for fluorescent lighting, earth tones and night vision-inspired cinematography for his torture scenes – alongside exhaustive shot-reverse-shot editing for his conversations that, as I’ve said, are often unnecessary restatements of the previous scene or the one before that. Kim’s use of barbed wire fences in foregrounds shots add to this claustrophobic cinematic style. Characters seated across a table from one another—be it in a restaurant or the torture chamber—accomplishes a similar effect when they are positioned at opposite ends of the frame or shot individually from low angles. In the long run, though, all of the horror of torture (the violence at times is still gut-wrenching) and questions of justice in a very blasé manner. Perhaps the worst irony, though—and I’m really tempted now to think this is his motive for making this film in the first place—is that Kim claims a citation of real life for a work that so extremely conforms to old-fashioned and hegemonic narrative conventions.