While picnicking in the forest with his classmates, college student Young-gul (Kim Chung-chul) takes off in pursuit of a butterfly. After trapping the insect in his net, he then kills it with an injection of poison. A strange woman sitting in the clearing nearby chastises him for the hubris of this act, stating further that a human’s death is every bit as insignificant as that of an insect. Young-gul scoffs at this notion, saying that a human’s death is “much more noble”. The woman then invites him to share a glass of orange juice with her. Afterwards, she confesses that she has come to the forest as part of a suicide pact. As her partner in that pact has failed to show up, she has instead poisoned Youg-gul so that he can accompany her into death.
My last encounter with director Kim Ki-Young was a screening of his 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid, which is widely considered to be one of the most important works in Korean cinema. Suffice it to say that I had a hard job of picking my jaw up off the floor afterward. In that film, Kim matter of factly, and from behind a veneer of tidy formalism, piled on ever more absurdly heightened levels of melodrama and depravity before finally delivering an out-of-left-field climax that could have easily taught Zac Snyder the real meaning of the term “sucker punch”. As you might guess from the above summary of A Woman After a Killer Butterfly’s opening five minutes, the intervening eighteen years seemed to have done little to mellow him out.
The 1970s were a depressed period for Korean cinema, but, thanks to the financial support of his wife, a successful dentist, Kim was able to continue working independently, making the films that he wanted to make with relatively little interference. And what the films he wanted to make looked like, for the most part, were genre films -- albeit genre films that were driven more by Kim’s peculiar sensibilities and obsessions than by any of the tropes one would normally expect. This, combined with his tendency toward rough surrealism, tempts me to compare Kim to Seijun Suzuki, although the ringing endorsement that would amount to on my part makes me feel that I should wait until I take in a few more of his film before (probably inevitably) making it.
As for the hapless Young-gul, he survives his poisoning, although his poisoner dies. And in perhaps an early example of Korean cinema’s long tradition of unlikely police protocols, the detective assigned to the case gives him the woman’s distinctive butterfly pendant as a souvenir. He nonetheless remains depressed and suicidal in the wake of the event and, upon returning home, decides to hang himself. He is interrupted in this by a knock on the door from a scruffy itinerant book seller, who insists that he buy a book about overcoming death through the power of will. The seller says that he has read the book himself and, as a result, cannot be killed. And so, as you would, Young-gul kills him. True to his word, the seller returns to life and continues to hector Young-gul as he decomposes. Even after Young-gul burns his body, the seller briefly returns in skeletal form before finally collapsing into dust.
Young-gul next accompanies a friend to a cave, from which they steal the two thousand year old skeleton of a Silla Dynasty era woman. His friend tells him that if Young-gul does a proper enough job of reassembling the skeleton, it might mean a job for him working as an assistant to the prominent archeologist Professor Lee (Nam Koong Won). And so Young-gul sets to the task, finding that, once assembled, the skeleton gains flesh and returns to life as a beautiful young woman. Having been put under a spell by an ancient shaman in order to avoid an unhappy marriage, the woman informs Young-gul that she must now consume a raw human liver in order to prevent herself from returning to skeletal form. Young-gul frowns upon this and confines her to his apartment. Upon returning, he brings with him a pastry-making machine that he has bought in the hope that it will help them make a little extra money. The two then share a night of passion as the machine noisily belches out pastry shells all over them.
Hold on, I’m not finished…
Unable to bring herself to eat Young-gul’s liver, the woman allows herself to once more become a skeleton, which Young-gul then dutifully delivers to Professor Lee. It turns out that Professor Lee has a daughter, Kyungmi (Kim Ja-ok), who, like all of the women in Killer Butterfly, is icily antagonistic toward Young-gul. It is eventually revealed that she was the erstwhile partner in the suicide pact with the woman from the beginning of the movie, with a matching butterfly pendant to prove it, and that she now also wants Young-gul to take her late partner’s place and accompany her into death. Meanwhile, a mysterious party is sending skulls to Professor Lee that are claimed to be ancient, yet appear to be freshly harvested, with newly severed heads starting to arrive soon thereafter. In a sudden detour into giallo territory, Young-gul sets out to find the culprit and, in the process, witnesses the desecration of a corpse by a man in a butterfly costume.
Now, as much as I abhor lengthy plot synopsis, I think it can be forgiven in this case because… well, first of all, because characterizing what’s described above as such would require an extremely charitable definition of the word “plot”. But also because the manic unpredictability of same is one of the primary factors that makes Killer Butterfly so compellingly, fascinatingly watchable. Rather than weave a story, Kim here catalogues a series of events that steadily escalate in insanity, with the only structure seemingly provided by his obsessively hammering upon themes of gynophobia and the notion of a life force and death urge locked in a constant cycle of mutual derision and belittlement. At the same time, the movie keeps a maddeningly straight face through its stately approach to color and composition, exhibiting a formalism that, I think, speaks to Kim’s time spent in Japan. And then sometimes there’s a pastry machine. The result is a film that lulls the viewer into an expectation of familiar genre elements and then plunges him down a rabbit hole tracing the labyrinthine contours of a singularly fevered imagination.
Believe it or not, there is much of A Woman After a Killer Butterfly that I have refrained from describing, including a denouement that goes every bit as far off the rails as that of The Housemaid. Fortunately, like the previously reviewed -- and just as cumbersomely titled -- Devil! Take the Train to Hell, it is one of a number of films made available in full on YouTube by the Korean Film Archive. Now, I’m not saying that you’ll like it, but I am saying you should check it out. Because, like it or not, I guaranty you’ll never have seen anything quite like it.