Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Mondo Macabro
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (21st March 2020).
The Film

So jaded film goer, do you feel that you have seen it all, that you have searched high and low and that you have waded in the river of desultory cult films and that you are bored and unimpressed by what you have found? Where to turn next? Why not take a walk on the wild side, be a bit risky, and see what gems other countries have to offer? Well, my friend, allow me to introduce you to the surrealistic world of director Ki-young Kim, a maverick film maker who unfortunately left us much too early, but his incredible output still exists to challenge and engage us in some head shaking, thought provoking material nonetheless.

The director, who originally started out pursuing a career in dentistry, got sidetracked by an interest in the theater. He was tapped by the U.S. Information Service in 1955 during the Korean War to produce propaganda films and using discarded equipment, he made his first two films which were huge successes. Kim made a number of documentaries for the U.S. Information Service and gave him a hand on education on how to bring in a film under budget and under time while keeping expenses low. Utilizing his success as a filmmaker, Kim went on to found his own production company and released his first film, "Box of Death", in 1955; this was the first Korean film to make use of synchronous sound. Unfortunately this film was lost, but it displayed early stylistic influences from the Italian neo-realists and allowed Kim to continue making more films. In 1956 Kim formed Ki-young Kim Productions and started making crowd pleasing melodramas including the films "Touch Me Not" (1956), "A Woman’s War" (1957), and "Twilight Train" (1957). With the film "Defiance of a Teenager" (1959) Kim again changed styles and started to use his camera to investigate socially conscious realism exploring a definite pre-feminist side, highly unusual for a male director at the time. 1960 was a turning point for Korean cinema and with it came the end of the Syngman Rhee ruling class; Rhee had overseen the transfer of power from the U.S. Army Military Government to the Government of South Korea and helped establish the First Republic of Korea which lasted until 1960. In 1962 General Park Chung-Hee would ascend to power and would rule for the next two decades. Taking advantage of the relaxation of governmental control over filmmaking, Kim directed his biggest breakthrough hit, "The Housemaid" (1960). This film featured a predatory servant that literally unhinges the balance of harmony in the household of a film composer. This film marked Kim’s break with realism, the main style of Korean cinema at the time, and his embracing a form of expressionism that Kim would eventually make his own trademark. Kim would re-make this film a total of three times, to make what would eventually be referred to as “The Housemaid Trilogy”; "The Housemaid" (1960), "Woman of Fire" (1971), and "Woman of Fire ‘82" (1982). Since Kim was dependent on his wife for his main source of finance, he was essentially an independent agent, allowing him the freedom to explore issues that he considered significant: gothic excess, surrealism, elements of horror, perversions and sexuality, earning him the nickname “Mr. Monster” from his admirers. A true individual, Kim did not engage in kowtow politicking with fellow main stream filmmakers and journalists, instead choosing to stay true to his own path as a maverick director. He and his wife were killed in a tragic house fire on February 5, 1998 bringing a close to his wide and varied career.

So what is so unique about "Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death" other than its unusual title? The film is not overly concerned with linear, believable storytelling, but instead is more of a philosophical quest about life and happiness while displaying a unique and quirky sense of black humor at times. The film begins with the main character Young-gul Kim (Jeong-cheol Kim), a rather depressed student that we will follow through the length of the film. We see Kim boarding a bus for a school outing with the intent of capturing some butterflies. Yes, he is seen carrying traditional butterfly net, usually cinematic shorthand indicating that the man is a lunatic and is headed for the looney bin. He spies a large butterfly in a field and he captures it, injecting it with a solution that kills it with a large and dangerous looking syringe. He sees a rather cute woman sitting under some trees and she tells Kim that she is waiting for a friend to join her. “How about some orange juice?” she asks innocently and Kim thoughtlessly knocks the beverage back. She continues with her dialogue: “Is death really noble? The juice is poisoned. I don’t really want to die alone.” Kim is stunned and starts running through the woods yelling “I’ve been poisoned!” The woman is crawling along a bank of a river and is slowly dying: “We’ll be going to heaven together” she exclaims and then lies still. Kim wakes up in a hospital where a gruff detective informs him that he has been cleared free of all murder charges, and as a souvenir, he tosses him the butterfly pendant that his assailant was wearing. This all happens in the first five minutes of the film. As Bette Davis said in "All about Eve" (1950): “Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.” Indeed, it is.

A suicidal Kim goes home to the shack that he calls home and decides that the close brush with death was too much to handle, plus life has no meaning, right? There comes a knock on the door moments before Kim places his head in the noose; talk about untimely disturbances, who could it be? It turns out to be a persistent door to door bookseller: “I’m selling a book that tells you that you don’t ever need to ever die if you have enough willpower.” This scene is blackly humorous as Kim and the salesman argue back and forth about surviving. “Get out of here. I hate books” Kim states and then he stabs the bookseller repeatedly. Kim realizes that he needs to dispose of the unwanted intruder and so he buries him on the hill outside his shack. The man, of course returns from the grave, cackling as he hysterically yells about his incredible willpower. This scene borders on absurdity as Kim tries several times to rid himself of the persistent peddler, including setting the man on fire, but you just can’t keep a good man down, especially when he has willpower! Kim is about to hang himself again when a blu lit skeleton that talks accosts him; this reminded me of a Three Stooges short where the boys are dispatched to a haunted castle and they encounter several wise cracking skeletons. The book salesman is so dedicated to the cause that he eventually crumbles to dust, thus spoiling Kim’s suicidal interests for now.

Kim runs into a pal of his who tells him that he knows where there is the skeleton of a 2,000 year old woman located in a cavern and that if Kim can steal the bones and reassemble them, his pal will hook him up with the famous Dr. Lee (Kung-won Nam) and a possible job. Hey, that sounds completely realistic, doesn’t it? Sure, what’s a little grave robbing if it leads to a good job? The two sneak into the cavern and smuggle the bones out in a backpack, telling the curious guard that they are the remains of his dead mother, and they just thought that they could entomb them there. Again, the director’s bleak sense of humor peeks through.

After reassembling the bones of the skeleton (Kim is good at puzzles it seems), the skeleton is reborn and she appears as a gorgeous babe; one catch though, she is cursed and needs to eat a human liver in the next twenty days or else it is back into a bag of bones. Guess whose liver is being craved? Right, it is our harmonica playing lead and he is not interested in being on the menu. This of course leads to some prime moments of dialogue: “Are you thinking of eating my liver again?”, “I’m starving…” she replies. “Are all girls like this?” he asks. “Give me a break, it’s been 2,000 years.” “Ugh, he sighs, “Girls come with so much baggage.” Ah, seems like love at first bite. In a bizarre turn, Kim has two guys deliver a pastry machine, “in order to help us make some money” he reasons. The machine churns out a constant stream of pasties at the camera lens in a sort of wacky 2-D effect. The time is running out on the liver deadline and Kim decides to brave the knife but his hottie decides that she likes him too much and instead they make love for the last time on a pile of rice pastries and she turns back into a skeleton. Not one to miss an opportunity, Kim swiftly packs her bones up and takes them to the home of Dr. Lee.

Immediately Kim is hired as Lee’s new assistant, but it turns out that Lee’s daughter, Kyingmi (Ja-ok Kim) was the friend that was late in arriving to meet the suicide girl at the film’s start. Small strange world isn’t it? Kyingmi is no bright star either; prone to sulking and depressed herself, she mourns the loss of her best friend: “My poor friend died alone…I don’t want her to be alone in heaven.” Talk about a couple of star crossed lovers: Kyingmi wants nothing more than to have Kim kill himself but he refuses and that makes Kyingmi crazy. The crazy ass plot continues as Dr. Lee is receiving mysterious packages via courier. The packages contain fresh skulls; however this coincides with a series of grisly decapitation murders that are happening in town. Could there be a connection? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. All this coincides with a series of weird dreams that Kim is having that features a man dressed as a giant butterfly stealing fresh corpses. What does it all mean?

Dr. Lee is obsessed with the skulls of Koreans because he is determined to prove that the Korean people are descended from the Mongol race; he can prove this by measuring the skulls and their features. It’s all very scientific, see. Kim thinks that he is losing his sanity so in order to make Kyingmi forget a fairly stern cancer diagnosis; Dr. Lee thinks that it would be a good idea if his daughter simply got laid. Dad sends the couple off to a weekend on the beach with other tent camping youngsters. As they lay in the darkness, the sounds of passion from the others filter into the tent. Young-gul Kim gets excited and attempts to rape Kyingmi but she resists and slaps him hard across the face: “Don’t even think about it” she warns. She begs Kim to kill himself, but he isn’t interested in death anymore now. Returning home Dr. Lee has a moment of embarrassing dialogue with his daughter: “Did you guys do it?” he asks eagerly. Kim is told to “Cut it off!” when the doc hears that the mission wasn’t accomplished. Kim gets angry and stomps out of the house only to meet up with his only friend and get wasted in a bar. “Enough talk about death!” says Kim to his pal as the bottles line the table top. “Yeah, yeah” says his buddy, slipping him a mickey; Kim passes out and his pal drags the body to the butterfly man who decapitates Kim and then mails the fresh head to Kyingmi in a box wrapped with pink ribbons. Yes, this is all coming together nicely. This is one helluva film, never boring and unusually more of a thinking man’s horror film than what passes today for horror. I must congratulate Kim on his doing more with a constricted budget and a shortened timeline; many filmmakers could learn some valuable lessons from this man. Kim reminds me of the legacy of Mario Bava, especially with his use of color and lighting to help establish a certain mood in the film. I encourage all viewers that are searching for some new thrills to pick up this Blu-ray and to watch it with an open mind; I think that you may like what you see.

Video

Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen 1080P 24/fps mastered using AVC MPEG-4 compression. Even though Mondo Macabro claims that this film is taken from a brand new 4k transfer of the film’s original 35 mm negative, there is some visible scratching’s and occasionally the picture appears soft, but these aren’t major hurdles and I am merely mentioning them here. Colors are reproduced well, and flesh tones are correct throughout. Strong black levels as well. Overall an impressive product.

Audio

There is a single Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack. The Korean language track is mono and is fairly concentrated with delivering dialogue. All dialogue is clear and properly balanced, no hiss or distortion and the soundtrack is enjoyable. Optional subtitles are in English.

Extras

Mondo Macabro has really made a sincere effort to please with this offering including a plethora of extras that provide additional research on the director and his earlier efforts.

The audio Commentary track with Kenneth Brorsson and Paul Quinn of the “What’s Korean Cinema?” podcast and these two dudes now their stuff as they discuss the director, his films and they try to comment on what is happening in the film when necessary. I found this to be enlightening and interesting.

Interview with Lee-Hwa-si (11:22), the actress speaks openly about her long running career with the director (7 films in total) and she tells some insightful stories of what it was like on the set with Ki-young Kim behind the camera.

Interview with Producer Jin-woo Jeong in two segments: (16:05 and 12:59). In the first part, the man speaks about how he got his start in Korean cinema, the evolution of his career, and how he met the director. In the second section, Jin-woo comments on the current state of Korean cinema, how he produced three films for Ki-young, and his own thoughts about the film.

Interview with cinematographer Koo Jong-mo (6:26). The cinematographer shares his memories of what it was like working with Ki-young, his recollections on how the film did financially when released, and ultimately how well it was received by audiences.

"Eleven Questions with Darcy Paquet" (14:59) featurette. The producers of this segment ask the American film critic and author eleven questions about the film and the director. Paquet is the man behind the site Koreanfilm.org and he speaks about the importance of Korean cinema and its influences.

"More from Mondo" is a trailer reel (13:50) featuring a snazzy soundtrack, this pack of trailers will have you howling at the moon!

Packaging

Comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case with funky artwork.

Overall

Refreshing as definitely something different and filled with some hysterical moments as well, this is macabre with a capital "M". I am sure that you have never seen anything like this film with its unusual storyline, crazy plot twists, and interesting visual effects.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A-

 


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