[…] Nam Chul-woo’s inconsistent traits and the contradictory emotional flow that his actions entail are Kim Ki-duk’s way of confronting the viewers with the contemporary individual’s deprivation of will.
[…] Most importantly, «The Net» is also the story in which the viewer is trapped, during and after the film, when they step back out into the real world. The viewer’s emotions are undecided: what was this mix of tragedy and comedy? What should one make of the parody? Am I to laugh or to be horrified?
Most of the action in The Net is accomplished by proxy or “on behalf of” some value, some person or group of people. At the very beginning, we see Nam Chul-woo acting on his own behalf for the first time, dealing with the basics of life: food, shelter, care for the young, sex, work (with a clear preference for the latter two). To us he looks tired and depressed, but his wife tells him: «You look your finest at dawn». In these activities, he is himself; he exerts his will unhindered. Once he crosses the border to South Korea, he inadvertently becomes a representative of the North Korean State and the words and actions he performs are taken away from him: his will is now the will of the enemy State. He becomes a «potential spy». As the South Korean agents investigate him, they act on behalf of their own understanding of freedom, which they believe Nam Chul-woo must endorse in order to be saved. Captain Jong, the vindictive investigator, who tortures Nam in order to prove that he is a spy, acts on behalf of his own family, killed in the Korean war. Along his sojourn in the South, Nam asks to return to North Korea in the name of his love for his wife and daughter, and on behalf of his loyalty to the regime, which holds them in custody. Nam also acts on behalf of protecting the feeble when he fights off two clients abusing a prostitute in the street, etc.
The second time Nam acts on his own behalf – not for his family, his country, nor for another’s will – is also the last. After he is released by the North Korean secret service, although, once again, he has the shelter, food, the child, the loving wife, he is a devastated man and cannot connect to them anymore. His only refuge remains his boat: «This is my entire fortune». Since he is forbidden to fish, he breaks through the border security, jumps in his boat and heads to the middle of the river. There, he is neither in the South, nor in the North and it is where he is most himself. This time, though, as he reunites with himself, he is shot dead by the North Korean border police.
Nam Chul-woo’s inconsistent traits and the contradictory emotional flow that his actions entail are Kim Ki-duk’s way of confronting the viewers with the contemporary individual’s deprivation of will. Of course, The Net shows the surreal identical nature of a totalitarian regime and of a capitalistic democracy, with both exerting the same pressure on the individual for completely different reasons. The former trying to impose obedience to the leader and national values, the latter trying to impose a standard of consumeristic freedom as a statistical obligation. But the film does not aim to tackle the problem as such or to offer some cathartic solution in the plot. It only means to induce in the viewer the confounding experience of the dispossession of will.
Nam is an intelligent and capable man, with a past in the special forces (implying secrecy, the capacity to withstand pressure and to engage in strategic actions), yet he often acts naively, or even stupidly. He is literally blinded by his allegiance to the North (partly out of fear, partly as his duty). When his guardian and keeper Oh Jin-woo asks him whether he wants to see Seoul, he says: «I do. But I can’t. I shouldn’t. I must see nothing to tell nothing». So he keeps his eyes closed until the circumstances are arranged so that he may open them. Even his “awakening” in Myeong-dong (literally the “bright cave”, the commercial district in central Seoul) is only the prelude to his fugue. Although during this brief passage he is free from surveillance, he has not got away from his own conscience and his actions are, again, not his own. When the fellow Northerner under investigation at the National Security Agency asks him a favour – to look for his daughter, who escaped the North-Korean regime and now works in Seoul – Nam loyally carries the message and becomes a link in the spy chain, accomplishing what he adamantly denied.
Most importantly, The Net is also the story in which the viewer is trapped, during and after the film, when they step back out into the real world. The viewer’s emotions are undecided: what was this mix of tragedy and comedy? What should one make of the parody? Am I to laugh or to be horrified? Kim Ki-duk is saying: you are to do neither; you are invited to accept the undecided feeling of the unlikely, the suspended feeling of disbelief and of the absence of any rational alternative. It is this overall dramatic frustration that inhabits the viewer through to the end, and which is at the core of the film. And perhaps it is also at the core of a large part of contemporary life.
The Net was screened at Bildrausch Filmfest 2017 in Basel