Moebius seems like the purest distillation of everything that Ki-duk Kim is as a filmmaker. It’s completely without dialogue, tears through taboos like the Kool-Aid Man through tissue paper, and sticks itself in your mind like a difficult thorn. It’s the kind of movie that you wish you could dismiss because its full of uncomfortable grotesqueries, but doing so proves impossible. The extremity is not there for the sake of pure shock, or a “because we can” attitude. It means something.
Jae-hyn Jo, Eun-woo Lee, and Young-joo Seo are, respectively, a husband, a wife, and their son, all trapped it a direly unhappy family. The man is conducting a casual, open affair with a shopkeeper (also played by Lee), and things have reached their breaking point at home. The woman snaps and attempts to pull a Lorena Bobbitt on the man, but he catches her in the act and locks her out of their room. So she cuts off her son’s penis instead. Then eats it. Then she runs off into the night, leaving the man and son to adjust to a grim new life.
This is what happens in the first ten minutes. Onward, there is sexually-charged bullying, rape, attempted rape, a rapist and his victim reuniting for consensual sex, incestual rape, consensual incest, and three more penis removals. Bizarrely enough, the hardest to watch parts are not any of those, but rather a form of masturbation which involves pleasure derived from flaying one’s skin with a rough stone. It is not the least bit surprising that the film was initially banned in its native South Korea. The action is explicit but not graphic, all the gore and violence left off-screen, save for the briefest glimpses. That does not diminish but rather heightens the effect, allowing the audience’s imaginations to do their worst.
You don’t want to think about anything that happens in Moebius once its over, but you can’t help it (most likely doing so with your groin reflexively tensed in defense). Kim is, in abstract, exploring not just the obvious issues of castration anxiety and Oedipal complexes but how masculinity seems to be hopelessly linked to aggression. The movie’s title refers to a constant cycle of violence, of victims becoming victimizers, perpetuating paleolithic ideals of dominance over others.
Men prize getting off so highly that nothing, not even the loss of their own dicks, will get in their way, the film says. They’ll even mutilate themselves to attain that high. The father is so concerned for his son’s continued manhood that he goes so far as to have his own penis surgically removed so that he can donate it to him. Which is perversely sweet, and also links into another theme, about familial ties. And then there’s the fact that when the woman returns, after seeing what her husband has done to himself in her absence, she pursues her son sexually. To further punish the father? Because now the son is the one with all the “power?” Even more uncomfortable than the maiming is the ambiguity.
None of this could work without the hypnotic trio of actors at the center. Kim’s script gives them no words to say, so they must communicate wholly in looks and gestures. Moebius demonstrates what we already know but sometimes forget, which is that film’s power lies in the fact that it is a visual medium. Jo, Lee, and Seo deliver bravado silent performances. Two performances in the case of Lee, who makes her two characters feel so radically different that you might not catch that its the same actress playing both.
Moebius is unforgettable and ungradable. I do not begrudge anyone who would never, ever want to see it, nor anyone who comes out of the film hating it utterly. But I have seen it, and I wanted to hate it, and wish I could say there’s nothing to the movie. But there is so much more on its mind than ugliness, and so I can’t hate it, nor dismiss it.