Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I, Chuang Tsu, once dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering between here and there, in all its aims a butterfly. I just knew that I followed my moods like a butterfly, and was unconscious about my human nature. Suddenly I awoke; and there I laid: again 'me myself'. Now I don't know: was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man? Between man and butterfly, there is a barrier. Crossing it is called change."

This brain-teasing parable, attributed to the fourth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsu, forms the enigmatic underpinning of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk's 15th feature Dream. Here, too, there is a butterfly, and two figures diametrically opposed yet mysteriously linked through dreams – but unravelling the film's evolving ambiguities is like trying to define the sound of one hand clapping.

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Jin (Jo Odagiri) dreams that he is obsessively tailing the car of the girlfriend (Park Ji-a) who dumped him, when his own car becomes involved in a collision with another. Waking in alarm at the vividness of his dream, he drives out to the location where the crash occurred, only to discover that there really has been a hit-and-run incident - except that the driver behind the wheel was Ran (Lee Na-yeong), who insists she was asleep in bed at the time. It emerges that Ran is Jin's exact opposite – a woman who has dumped her own lover (Kim Tae-hyeon) – and that whatever Jin dreams, Ran acts out in her sleep. Disgusted that Jin's dreams of getting back with his former lover keep leading her back into the arms of her own despised ex, Ran insists that together they find a way to stop sleeping (and therefore dreaming) – but who is really dreaming? And can they ever wake up?

Dream bears all the hallmarks of a Kim Ki-duk film. There is the bizarre love triangle (or at least quadrangle) and impossible prison escape of 3-Iron (2004), the grotesque scenes of self-harm and wildly irrational, paradigm-shifting final images of The Isle (2000), and the presence of a Buddhist statue calmly watching over the proceedings, as in Spring, Summer, Autumn , Winter... and Spring (2003).

What is different here, however, is the loquacious dialogue, from a director more normally noted for the muteness of his characters. Even in this respect, however, Kim Ki-duk is, in fact, using language to highlight the communicative gulf that exists between his dramatis personae – for while Jin and Ran may talk at length, and with a large degree of repetition, Jin's every line is in Japanese, whereas Ran (along with all the other characters) speaks only in Korean, so that their conversations, though ostensibly bringing them closer together, also serve constantly to set them further apart (as well as to remove them entirely from reality).

Near the beginning of the film, a policeman confronts Ran with a surveillance camera image of herself at the wheel, and asks: "What about this picture? Does the camera lie? This is you, isn't it?" By the time Dream is over, viewers will be far from certain about the identities of the different characters or the veracity of the pictures that have been playing out on screen.

For despite its title, this is in fact a film about the slippery nature of reality, and the power of self-sacrificing love to restore balance and yield change in a world otherwise locked in a repeating pattern of selves perturbed and divided. Harmony is at last found in the space between a man and a butterfly, in a closing sequence that is as hauntingly beautiful as anything this side of sleep.

Reviewed on: 18 May 2009
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A woman acts out the dreams of a stranger.
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Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Starring: Jô Odagiri, Lee Na-yeong, Jang Mi-hie, Kim Tae-hyeon, Park Ji-a

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: South Korea

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The Isle