I admit upfront to having a soft spot for Kim Ki Duk – ever since THE ISLE showed me things I’d never seen before (and images too brutal and beautiful to forget), I’ve followed his releases as they’ve shown up year to year at TIFF.

DREAM, his most recent fiction film, was made in 2008. That film, a high-concept love story where a man’s dreams become the actions of a sleepwalking stranger, culminates in a hanging scene in a prison. During the filming of that particular action, the actress was accidentally left dangling, forcing the director (and writer/producer) to rescue his actress.

AIRIRANG joins KKD after the release of that film, where he has sat in refuge for three years. His shack is situated atop a hill overlooking a small village. Inside there is a tent that he sleeps in, and with the tent is, incongruously, a modern Macintosh computer. This bit of tech seems to be one of the last ties to a modern existence – the rest is all steampunk, cobbled together pipes.

The first moments of the film play without dialogue, the soundtrack filled with the clanging of his stove, the cracking of the snow, or the scraping of the ground as he digs a hole to relieve himself. All this creates a surreal, eerily intimate view of Kim’s hermetic life. As he enters his tent, the glow from the monitor illuminating his face, our protagonist begins to swear violently at the camera. He begins by chastising the art of acting, suggesting that playing evil is the most facile of actor pursuits. Is he swearing at the camera, the audience, or himself? Kim asks these very questions – pulling his hair back into a pony tail, the director asks in a scathing tone the questions that have stalked him for three years – why is he wasting his talent, what’s the cause for his creative impotence, why must this near tragedy be blown out of any sane proportion.

The response, as it must be loosely called, is also Kim, but a different character all together – drunk, hair disheveled, miserable. He sings the song of AIRIRANG, a song that “Koreans sing to themselves to feel better.” This is more a wail than a song, a screeching dirge at times that is shockingly off balance. The artist is laid bare, his soul exposed, yet the distanciation caused by the cross cutting to the “other” Kim keeps the nature of the rant in perspective. Later one, we see a third Kim, huddled in the tent, watching the other two “performances” on his editing station. Finally, a fourth Kim is seen once again attending to the daily tasks of life in the wilderness.

All these are different facets of the filmmaker we are treated to, from a a passionate, intense artist to a playful rogue incapable of letting the serious issues lay without poking fun. He makes explicit that, despite playing TIFF in the “Real to Reel” category, this work “is no Documentary, it’s a Drama”. This is a film from a person that is desperate to create yet feeling completely impotent. Kim claims to be completely disenchanted with the process of involving others in his art, so turns to a handheld digital SLR to shoot this part diary, part nature documentary. We are granted astonishing intimacy while at the same time getting glimpses into the manipulation by a master storyteller. This is a true auteur film, a self portrait where a filmmaker holds the strings on his own emotional breakdown, teasing out for the audience’s benefit. As his handbuilt espresso machines become more and more refined, so to does the narrative of the film gel, and almost accidentally it falls into a weird, comic genre piece.

Like most of this director’s work, AIRIRANG will divide audiences greatly. We often see in his films animal cruelty playing a role in emphasizing our own feelings about human cruelty (from slicing off the side of live fish to make sushi in THE ISLE, to the frog with the stone tied around its waist in SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER AND SPRING). This time, the animal being tortured on screen is the director himself, his creative process and emotional core laid bare in a brutal fashion.

This is such a nihilistic, almost solipsistic work that it’ll struggle to find even a modicum of conventional audience of support. Like the song sung throughout, it’s disjointed, out of tune, bordering on the intolerable. Yet what’s astonishing about it is that as a whole it actually works, we really do see something beautiful and cinematic born of this mix of narcissism and self loathing. It’s a filmmaker that can’t help making films, and a film that can’t help but be engaging and compelling despite all attempts at the contrary.

If Fellini can make surreal comedy out of a director’s neurosis about the pressures of being the creator of a film, Kim Ki Duk has certainly earned the right to make this subversive documentation about his own incapacities. Where 8 1/2 showed the charade of the grandiose, KKD exposes the fiction of the intimate. An exceptional work that’s easy to dismiss, this accidental wonder is a treat despite everything the director/producer/editor/writer/star/music supervisor/costume designer/etc. tried to to do to jeapordize it.