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Originally published Friday, March 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Bad Guy": A tormented pimp, a reluctant prostitute, a repugnant love story

Best known for last year's elegant, meditative "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring," the prolific writer-director Kim Ki-Duk...

Special to The Seattle Times

Best known for last year's elegant, meditative "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring," the prolific writer-director Kim Ki-Duk wasn't always so spiritual.

Two years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival showed his brutal, perverse 2001 film about Seoul's red-light district, "Bad Guy," which collected prizes at the Berlin, South Korean and Catalonian festivals. Now that it has returned for a regular run at the Northwest Film Forum, its international reputation seems difficult to justify.

Described by its creator as dramatizing "an act so cruel that it seems like divine will," it's the story of a mopey gangster-pimp, Han-gi (Cho Je-Hyun), who becomes obsessed with a college student, Sun-hwa (Seo Won). They're strangers, but that doesn't stop him from grabbing and kissing her on a crowded street in front of her boyfriend. She spits in his face and demands an apology.

Movie review 1 star

"Bad Guy," with Cho Je-Hyun, Seo Won. Written and directed by Kim Ki-Duk. 100 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes profanity, violence and sex scenes). In Korean, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

In the first of several absurd plot twists, she steals a wallet, its owner catches her, then he blackmails her into prostitution. It turns out that Han-gi is responsible for the arrangement — and that he has set up a trick mirror that allows him to watch her having sex with her clients.

A reluctant hooker at first, Sun-hwa becomes a tough professional, while Han-gi guiltily sheds tears behind the mirror and finds himself the target in a series of seemingly lethal street fights. He appears to be killed several times, yet no amount of blood loss stops him. Nor does prison. Eventually he and Sun-hwa escape to a beach, where she sheds her animosity toward him (does spitting in his face really mean "yes"?) and they appear to share a future or a past there (or both).

Fans of the film admire its narrative rule-breaking, which might be called selling out in a Hollywood movie. Perhaps such wishful thinking might be tolerable if the characters mattered, but we learn so little about Han-gi, Sun-hwa and their pals and enemies that they're little more than stick figures. Even a tale of mad love needs more to keep it going.

John Hartl:

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