Among the 34 features Kim Ki-young directed, "A Woman After a Killer Butterfly" remains one of the most noteworthy, although in this case, not just due to its quality as a film, but most due to its unusualness, since Kim exceeds the borders of the absurd and the supernatural here, along with his omnipresent melodrama.
The script, in essence, is comprised of three different stories and prologue, who come together through the protagonist, Yong-bin, a history student who lives almost like a hermit. During a trip with his co-students, he stumbles upon a woman, who, when he sees him killing a butterfly with a lethal injection, proceeds on poisoning him and herself, in a forced double suicide that he, somehow, manages to survive.
After he is released from the hospital, Yong-bin finds himself with suicidal tendencies, which are interrupted by a nosy book salesman, who speaks about the passion for life and even suggests that in order to erase his suicide notions, Yong-bin must kill someone instead of himself. Their interaction ends up with the salesman killed by the hands of our protagonist, although his presence does not cease at all, since he continues to philosophize as a corpse, and later as a skeleton.
The second story involves Yong-bin and a friend, who discover a corpse in a cave that is explored for archaeological purposes. Yong-bin takes the corpse to his home, but finds himself in the "company" of a 2000-year-old gorgeous woman, who has come back to life and is in search of a human liver if she is to survive. Furthermore, the two of them sleep together.
The third story, which takes the largest part of the film, has him living as a guest at the house of Professor Lee, an archaeologist who is obsessed with human skulls and Mongolian history. His daughter, Kyeong-mi eventually is revealed as a true femme fatale, but as the secrets of the family come to the fore, she is completely deconstructed as a character, just as she starts to form a romantic relationship with Yong-bin. Furthermore, a series of decapitations torment both the household and the local police.
At first glance, the absurdity mixed with fantasy, the b-movie aesthetics (including cheap SFX), the underlying sense of humor, and the grotesqueness of the stories, make the film seem like a combination of Seijun Suzuki and Shaw Brothers horror movies. For example, the interaction with the detective with the hat that always thinks Yong-bin is under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he explains his stories, is a distinct sample. Obviously, the aforementioned elements result in a truly cult film, but "A Woman After a Killer Butterfly" is so much more.
Kim Ki-young, in this utterly surrealist setting, explores a number of philosophical and social subjects. Life and death and the value of the first, loneliness, family, sex, desire and obsession are quite thoroughly analyzed through the three main stories. The concept of the femme fatale could not be missing from a Kim Ki-young film, and, in this case, finds one of its apogees, since it is presented through three women. The one who tries to kill Yong-bin in the beginning, the 2000-year-old corpse that comes back to life and, most of all, Kyeong-mi. Through these characters, Kim makes a direct connection between sexual desire, women, and death, while the concept of the butterfly serves as a metaphor of all three.
Furthermore, the interaction between Yong-bin and the professor's household, that also includes a handmaid, provides a social comment between the differences of the poor and aristocracy, with the protagonist obviously wishing to be included in the upper social classes, and the family (with the exception of the professor who does not seem to care) fighting him all the way, to a point at least.
The acting on the film is quite good. Kim Chung-chul as Young-gul is the undisputed star, having the longest screen time, and depicting a very difficult character that has to change negative psychological and sentimental statuses almost constantly, convincingly. Namkoong Won is also quite good as the calm and almost timid Professor Lee, with his change in attitude during the finale being one of the film's most impressive elements. The one who steals the show, though, is Kim Ja-ok as Kyeong-mi, whose transformation from a femme fatale to a completely broken woman is even more impressive than that of the aforementioned.
The production values suffer from the obvious lack of budget; nevertheless, Lee Seon-chun's cinematography is quite good, particularly in the mansion and the country, with the presentation of the former also benefitting the most from Lee Bong-seon's art direction. Kim Hui-su had a very difficult task as an editor, of joining all these different setting and stories together, and in that regard, he has done a very good job. I felt, however, that the movie would have benefitted from a bit of a tighter editing that would cut the duration from the almost two hours the film stretches.
Kim Ki-young has managed to shoot a supernatural, surreal horror/melodrama with philosophical and social implications and that is where the true value of the film lies, as a rather unique amalgam of cult, art-house and genre film.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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