M

When a fellow fan of Duelist told me he hated M (2007), my heart sank.

But the more I read people chastising the movie, the more determined I was to like it. Call it childish faith if you will, but Duelist was so perfect in my eyes it was impossible for me to accept that Lee Myung-se could make a bad movie. I read reviews that slammed M for being all style and no substance, for being absurdly difficult to understand. And I told myself, “If I can understand William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, I jolly well am going to understand M.”

Then I watched the movie and after 45 minutes I couldn’t continue. It left me so befuddled I hated it.

Everything was so dark and confusing, and the plot so fractured and non-linear. I could not differentiate dream from reality, could not reconcile the blackness with the sudden bursts of blinding color, the frenetic movements with the freeze frames. Kang Dong-won seemed like a psycho, Lee Yeon-hee like a stalker, and Gong Hyo-jin a mere afterthought. Words made no sense, there was no story! My brain and eyes hurt from trying to absorb it all. So much for believing in Lee Myung-se.

That was last night.

This morning I continued the movie and within the first five minutes it was like someone turned on the light and suddenly the darkness disappeared. Everything became so clear. To people who complain there is no story in M, allow me to tell it to you. From end to beginning, because that’s how Lee Myung-se tells it.

[BEWARE MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW]

Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met.

He came into a hair salon to have his hair washed (and cut, maybe) and the girl attended to him. When she saw him, she blushed so hard and ran to the back of the salon to change into prettier clothes. When it was all done (his hair, I mean), they said their farewells, hesitantly, shyly, as if reluctant to part. So he asked her, “Would you like a ride (on my bike)?” She stared at him astounded, as if disbelieving that her secret wish had come true.

They went first to the beach where they watched the sun set. And they talked about many things, because he had so much to say and she was such a good listener. Then they watched a movie. When it was over, he sent her home and again it was hard to part. So they shook hands and he squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. He was embarrassed that his strength could hurt her… and then he pulled her close.

So that was how that perfect first date ended. That was how their love began.

His name was Min-woo and she was Mimi. M and M. He played the guitar and they would hum and sing together. It was really sweet, that flush of first love. He was 18, she perhaps the same age. They were happy.

But his father got into financial difficulties, was declared a bankrupt, and then died. How, we do not know. Overwhelmed, Min-woo ran away. He didn’t tell Mimi, he just left.

According to their school friends (much later), Mimi took his leaving hard. She just seemed to waste away. Then, two months after his abrupt leaving, Min-woo called Mimi and said he was back and could they meet? Yes, of course!

That day was August 20, a Sunday. It was raining hard, so she took an umbrella with her and ran to their meeting place. She couldn’t wait to see him again. Traffic was heavy but still she ran, crossing the road as fast as she could. That was how the accident happened, that was how she died.

He didn’t know why she didn’t show up. He said later (11 years later) that he tried to forget her name after that, to erase her from his memory. So the years passed and he became a successful writer, someone eagerly courted by publishers, a “big shot” to his old friends from school. He also became engaged to Eun-hye, daughter of a rich man.

But now he had the worst thing that could plague a writer: writer’s block.

Was it triggered by stress over his mother’s debts (perhaps she was still trying to pay off the money his deceased dad owed)? Was it exacerbated by the publisher’s persistent reminders to finish the book since so much money, enough to buy a house, had been advanced to him already?

He could not sleep. Or he would sleep but wake up reeling from yet another nightmare. He started hearing voices. Someone seemed to be following him. Was it… Mimi? But his friend, a detective, told him Mimi was dead. That can’t be, Min-woo protested. He had seen her, spoken to her even.

I had to watch M all the way to the end to realize this was a ghost story. Or a ghostly love story, if you like.

As soon as I grasped that, I wanted immediately to rewatch the movie from the beginning, to fill in all the gaps in that bewildering first watch. But that realization also made the second viewing more eerie.

Now I knew the Mimi who was following Min-woo was a ghost. The mysterious man with the walking cane who kept following Mimi, who made her so afraid? Surely he was the Grim Reaper himself? And the Lupin Bar in that alley? The one with a ghostly hand for a handle, the one you enter at street level and go down and down the spiral stairs, as if descending into a dungeon. Was the place even real, or just the Grim Reaper’s hovel, a figment of Min-woo’s imagination?

I believe now that all the scenes of Mimi following him, of her running away from the Grim Reaper, of their tearful farewell on the train, were the workings of his pressured but still fertile writer’s mind.

He thought he had forgotten her, but she never went away, she lived deep in the recesses of that thing called memory. Now the memories were rushing back. She was his muse then, and she would now become the book he was struggling to write.

“Less poetic, more specific,” his editor advised. But how could he be specific when he had so many holes to plug in Mimi’s story, when the past and present kept colliding, when dream and wakefulness swirled together?

He began to see Mimi in Eun-hye, to hear the former’s voice when the latter was speaking. And she, his fiancée, she could sense that he was changing, that when he looked at her it was someone else he saw. “Is it a girl?” she asked, the edge in her voice so apparent, like a knife.

How could he explain it all to her?

Explain that this pain he felt was a curse his first love had bequeathed on him, that he would always miss her so much it was like a knife slicing his brain apart, that he would cry watching a comedy, that he was about to implode? No, he couldn’t explain.

How could he explain that he was hallucinating, that he could see the ghost of his first love? No one would believe him, not the doctor he was seeing, not Eun-hye. No one could see Mimi except himself. (In the image below, Eun-hye seems to be looking straight at Mimi, but she isn’t; she’s looking past Mimi into the distance.)

M… for memory. M for madness, which is what Min-woo is hovering at the edge of. M for Min-woo’s mind, which is what this movie is all about. M for the mirrors that the master (Lee Myung-see, who else?) is so fond of using in this film. M for mesmerizing, which is the only way to describe the acting here. (I am so proud of you, Kang Dong-won, for owning this immensely demanding role. Lee Yeon-hee and Gong Hyo-jin, take a bow, too.)

And M for masterpiece.

This movie blows my mind, just like Duelist did. Technically it may be even more complex; it certainly looks that way. It’s so fantastically crafted, this visual feast, this assault on the senses, giving me yet again such a visceral high. Some scenes are so gorgeous I want to weep, like that Mars-like landscape where Min-woo and Mimi sat to watch the waves.

Water is a recurring motif here, in the rain that falls, the puddles on the ground, the seemingly formless fluidity that is Min-woo and Eun-hye’s apartment, where the walls flow into each other and the reflection from the ceiling lights turns the floor below into a pool of ripples on which Min-woo is floating. Then that definitive moment that convinces us more than words can that Min-woo is about to crack: the avalanche of water crashing down on him from the ceiling. You’re a god, Lee Myung-se. No one makes movies like you.

To my dear friend who says he hated M:

I’m going to watch this a third time. Will you join me?

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12 thoughts on “M

  1. Afraid even a fifth time won’t work. I only disliked this and another he made in 1996, so that’s still a pretty badass record. Just a combination of pedal acting (Lee Yeon-Hee in particular) and some below average (for Lee Myung-Se) visual flow choices, otherwise it’s the usual Lee Myung-Se.

  2. I thought the visual flow was stunning, but this is only my second Lee Myung-se movie so I can’t tell if it was less vintage than normal. After the false start, it just clicked; it resonated with me.

    Came across this review and wonder if I will fall into that last category. Am certainly itching to rewatch it! ^^

    “M shows us what happens when a director cracks his skull open and photographs the dreams that escape, like wisps of smoke. And it has inspired extreme passions: many Koreans despised it when it was released, but fans staged a street protest to keep it in theaters, and some have seen it dozens of times.” – subwaycinema.com

    And here’s an excerpt from meniscuszine, a review I enjoyed because it expresses exactly the reasons why I love the movie.

    “It soon becomes clear what Lee is attempting here: putting his main character’s psyche on screen as if it were a film. All throughout, we must ask ourselves if what we are seeing is dream, fantasy, reality, or scenes from the novel Minwoo is trying to write. The provocative idea Lee posits is that, at least as far as artists are concerned (but perhaps for more ordinary people as well), is that it all is essentially the same. “M” at its heart is an illustration of the agonies of artistic creation, connecting it to other films which deal with this subject, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink.” The latter film, especially, provides some interesting parallels with M, particularly in its surreal and often absurdist sequences. The difficulties of creating art, and the sense of isolation from others that often results from these efforts, are rendered so keenly as to make one suspect that there are some autobiographical elements at play here as well.”

  3. Isn’t that the “western critic half-asses a Lee Myung-Se description” template review for every film he’s done since Gagman? The “wisps of smoke and dreams escaping” is essentially what First Love and My Love, My Bride showed, and that’s 16 and 18 years ago, respectively. And half the fans “protesting” were Kang Dong-Won fangirls. ㅋㅋ

    Still, can’t wait for Reckless. I’ve gone through Lee’s madness for close to two decades, so I’ll take a misfire or two, no problem.

  4. Sir, at least concede the “Kang Dong-Won fangirls” had legit reasons to protest! I thought he really delivered.

    Going back to your earlier comment, you thought Lee Yeon-hee merely pedestrian? I didn’t think she was outstanding, but she wasn’t too bad. Could be more ghostly, though. ^^

  5. I remember watching this like and ended up asking myself, “WTH was that?”

    Aiks…I guess I wasn’t deep enough to appreciate the mysterious beauty of the movie. I only watched the movie once tho… and didn’t really bother to clarify more because I was just too confused, and I was afraid if I delved in further, I would fare worst (i.e. more blunder and confusion).

    But Kang Dong Won as you said, was really good. He really gave me the creeps in the movie. There were parts where he had to open his eyes so wide…and I freaked out because his psychopathic or delusional energy just sent chills down my bones. Thumbs up to the actor.

    Lee Yeon Hee was okay… I may have overlooked her potential because I remember I was so envious that she got to act with KDW (and so many popular hunks like Hyun Bin..etc), that kinda made me go ehhh when I see her. So bad of me…hahaha..

    Thought Gong Hyo Jin was more convincing as the fiance tho. She had better chemistry with KDW..

  6. Hi ripgal

    Agree with you about KDW and GHJ. They’re both such fine actors. KDW has come a long way since I first watched him in Wolves’ Temptation. To be honest, I persevered with M because I heart KDW (and Duelist). Was so thrilled when I was finally able to understand what the movie was about, at least from my limited perspective. I didn’t have to force myself; it all just clicked when I returned to it the next day.

    (Psst, have you finished Again, My Love? I remember you were pretty excited about it.)

  7. “And the Lupin Bar in that alley? The one with a ghostly hand for a handle, the one you enter at street level and go down and down the spiral stairs, as if descending into a dungeon. Was the place even real, or just the Grim Reaper’s hovel, a figment of Min-woo’s imagination?”

    I thought the Lupin Bar was a place Mimi and Min-Woo went to together during the time they went on the bike stroll, to watch a movie and the sunset.

  8. Hi! just wanted to let you know that youtube has all the parts except parts 10 & 11. there’s no video, just the audio. Is there any other site hosting this great movie? would appreciate it so much!

  9. ahh. im done watching this just NOW, 2012 –after Inception landed in 2010. And this movie was in 2007. So how brillant the director was? STANDING OVATION, CLAPPING ALL THE WAY.

    I must admit after my first attempt i was left baffled . And I must say this movie is impressive in my eyes because i will surely watch this again. Like min woo i feel like i need to go back in the Lupin Bar alley.

    I love how director Lee Myung-se slammed Duelist and garnered daebak status whether in critic’s or viewer’s eyes. But as a director I admire his bold move to interpret a love story different from the typical, specially in a writer’s point of view.

  10. I search for M but only could find Gonghyojin’s cut with sub, the full one doesn’t have sub. So I tried to watch it, but then comes to a different impression of storyline but still interesting.
    The small cut is still engaging and I was amazed by the visual that leaves me scared as if I watch a thriller movie.
    When I watch it, I thought that Minwoo has split personality disorder and that he couldn’t tell between fantasy and reality. His wife/Fiancee (Eun Hye) had to deal with his changes as he faced difficulty in writing his novel and hallucination. He was indulged in his works that he forget about EunHye. He’s no longer feel romance with her and she begin to realize that all her love and dedication towards MinWoo couldn’t bring Minwoo’s love towards her. Minwoo who forget the memory of his love creates mimi as an illusion. While his mind is in confussion, it was brought to reality as Eunhye decide to leave. She couldn’t stand him any more and she is in doubt whether he is really in love with her. When Minwoo said he loved her in the past after her long one-sided love towards Minwoo, she thought she was dreaming. Minwoo has a realization as Eunhye comes out of the door, that his memory of lost-love is Eunhye. Mimi is Eunhye. The forgotten love as he was lost in his work has returned so he then looked at Eunhye with his his long-lost feeling of love as he once loved her in the past.
    That’s my conclusion. I wouldn’t know it is a ghost story if I only look at Gong Hyojin’s cut as I considered Mimi only as a twisted memory born into a fantasy character created by Minwoo’s mind.

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