Describing ‘Moebius’ to the casual filmgoer

Having worked the Toronto International Film Festival this year as both a volunteer and a filmgoer, I often get asked about what movies I’ve seen at TIFF so far, and what’s been my favourite. I am watching two more movies tomorrow, Hotell and A Wolf at the Door, so while I can’t say this Korean movie has been my ultimate favourite, it’s definitely in my top three!

Here is the official TIFF synopsis of Korea’s Moebius:

One of the most powerful and controversial films of the last decade. Moebius is Korean maestro-provocateur Kim Ki-duk’s most audacious work to date — and that’s saying something. This disturbing yet cathartic film is a potent metaphor for a contemporary society morbidly obsessed with its own sexuality. It is also a reflection on incest, and that visceral bond that connects each of us to the parents who made us — in an endless loop like the “Möebius strip” suggested by the title.

Observed by their adolescent son (Seo Young-ju), a couple’s fight over the husband’s infidelity turns to a grotesque calamity. After failing to sever her husband’s penis, the infuriated wife chooses instead to dismember her son in order to hurt his father. Family violence sparks a chain of events that culminates in a dramatic epilogue of destruction.

Not a silent film but a wordless one, Moebius bears the clear mark of Kim’s singular genius. It’s a modern Greek tragedy bordering on psychological thriller, a pitchblack comedy, a crazy-weird depiction of pain-induced pleasure — in all cases, a sheer work of art, lucid and coherent in its shocking madness. Extracting remarkable performances from Cho Jae-hyun as the father, Lee Eun-woo as both the mother and the husband’s lover, and especially from Seo, Kim once again rewards his valiant audience with mesmerizing art. This is pure cinema — at its most brilliantly transgressive.

When I get asked about what Moebius is all about, it’s a little difficult to explain to a casual filmgoer. I mean, it’s not for everyone. It’s an incredibly twisted story, with some extremely graphic scenes – some audience members left my screening during the film – so it’s definitely not for the weak. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I could handle this movie either. But the evening before watching this movie, I had endured a violent thriller/horror called The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, which I typically would not have sat through had it not been a TIFF-picked movie, so I figured that if I could sit through a film such as Strange Colour, then I could certainly sit through Moebius. As we have it, I ended up enjoying Moebius more than I did Strange Colour! The latter got right under my skin in a way that it felt like I was experiencing internal bleeding or some sort, while Moebius‘s more narrative structure didn’t offend me as much… But I digress, this isn’t a film comparison blog post!

So, when asked what this Korean film is about, I usually end up giving my inquisitor a curious hesitant smile, before watching their facial expression while I describe the movie reluctantly, because how else can you explain the premise of Moebius in the most basic non-offensive way? “Family violence” is too simple a description to describe the movie because it goes far beyond that. It’s a crazy movie, about loyalty, incest, family, love, pleasure, violence and even the unique Korean bullying school culture. It’s a movie that unravels right from the get-go, the first scene when you see the husband and wife angrily physically fight each other on the floor of their expansive home. As an audience member, with this scene, the director has already started preparing you for some of the most disturbing scenes you’ll ever see in cinema.

Watching movies that were out of my comfort zone was one of my rules for experiencing TIFF this year. In the past years, I have always chosen a mix of North American films, Asian films and non-Asian/European/foreign films. This year, I made sure to choose something that I normally would not sit through either at home or in theatres. This, in my opinion, is what TIFF is all about – in fact, it is the festival’s mission for this year: “Transforming the way people see the world through film,” and Moebius does exactly that. Don’t forget that the entire movie is without dialogue! I hadn’t expected that either. I had chosen to see this mostly because I had read that it was banned from Korean theatres, and thus, there would be few chances to see this either pirated or in theatres, so ever the brave courageous Aries woman that I am, I chose this film on the basis that I may never have the chance again. And like the TIFF synopsis states, yes, director Kim Ki-duk rewards you for being a valiant audience member.

All in all, would I recommend this movie to casual filmgoers? Movie lovers who adore million-dollar blockbuster productions like The Dark Knight Rises or Iron Man 3? Probably not. Though they might enjoy how the story is unravelled through a movie without dialogue, the actual content is not for everyone, and is only for the particularly daring. Even its most comedic scenes feature some element of grotesque insanity. So maybe I should just say that this movie is only for the partially insane? Or the extremely adventurous? If the former, then what would that say about me?! Hah.

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I did an epic journey via Uber and train from Canary Wharf, London to Gatwick Airport with three massive luggages and one carry-on on my last morning in the UK. It took me three hours because I had to somehow get all three bags – two of them were overweight, one of which was 31kg – from the second floor of my apartment building to the @AirTransat airline counter. An airline counter that wasn't even in the same terminal as the train station I would be arriving in.⁣
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So, from second floor flat, to a 30+ minute Uber to Blackfriars, to the second floor of the Blackfriars train station (by lugging two bags 20 metres, then the other two 40 metres, repeat), to the Gatwick Airport train station, to getting an airport employee to find a trolley for me (by asking him nicely as I stood there waiting by my four bags because lol I'm not going to drag four bags across a busy airport terminal), to somehow pushing my trolley cart onto the inter-terminal train, to finally, reaching the airline counter of #AirTransat.⁣
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For three hours, from 6:30 AM, to when I finally had all my bags checked in at 9:15 AM, I was running on pure adrenaline. I don't even know how I was able to do it. I was like a bull on a mission, to get from point A to point B to point C etc. But what I also remember, was my body basically crashing into a damn near anxiety attack while at the counter. I was gulping for air, taking deep breaths, and trying to calm myself down. When I finally walked away from the airline counter, I nearly forgot my carry-on on the trolley, and when I finally had the chance to sit down, my hands were actually shaking. For all the times I've solo travelled around the world in the past year and a half, this has never happened to me before. That morning, I finally understood why airports need therapy dogs.⁣
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