Something unfortunate happened to South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk, a veteran of many creepy thrillers, on his way to becoming a better Brian De Palma. He had a hit—a huge one (by art-house standards). His 2003 smash, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, was about, of all things, Buddhism. It was serene and contemplative. It played in New York cinemas for nearly a year.
Kim’s range is to be applauded. But with his shocking, eerily romantic Time, about a dysfunctional love affair spiced up by dueling plastic surgeries, he may be back on course toward achieving his own Sisters, or even a minor Vertigo. One shouldn’t assume it’s easier to make a psychodrama about plastic surgery than one about Buddhists. (Case in point: Looker.) Time, though, with its mysteriously apt title and harshly lit modern interiors, succeeds on its own terms, establishing a daring atmosphere of dread—of the world as one big operating table in which a beautiful, slightly vacant couple (Seong and Ha) competes for perfection and ego strokes.
Time is not the work of an overly serious artist. There’s a cattiness to some of the soap-opera exchanges, romantic squabbling gone ugly, which feels improvised and occasionally banal. But the film takes a majestic dive into Freud’s deep end when one thrown-off lover radically reengineers her face in order to lure her straying object of desire. Never mind the absurdity of it all, the hospital bills, etc.; the idea is perfectly daffy. Reencountering her dude, she isn’t expecting to compete against her own memory. That’s when Time becomes ingenious.