A soused and bitter housewife catches her husband receiving a phone call from his mistress; in her rage, she decides to castrate him in his sleep, but when he thwarts her in the act, she slices off their teenage son’s organ instead. As shocked husband and son look on, she eats the penis in one gulp, and disappears into the night, not to return for several weeks. All of this transpires in the first 10 minutes of Moebius, and if it sounds like a joke, that’s because to a certain extent it is. South Korean provocateur Kim Ki-duk’s latest thrown gauntlet is an obsidian comedy in which the characters’ actions and desires are too absurd to be stated aloud—and thankfully they never are, as the film remains completely devoid of dialogue throughout (though there are plenty of grunts, moans, and shrieks to fill the silence). What might amount to gimmick in the hands of a less confident director instead becomes a kind of silent opera, in which the actors’ precise facial emoting and a muscular editing rhythm create a melodrama by turns horrific and hilarious.
There’s nothing in Moebius that even remotely resembles reality, but that distance gives Kim more freedom to focus explicitly on the age-old themes at play here. Phallic anxiety, Oedipal desire, la petite mort—all the semioticians’ favorites are at play here via the characters’ unending quest for more extreme means of bodily satisfaction. Castration, so often the exclamation point at the end of exploitation cinema, here becomes a causative force: Following his wife’s departure, father (Cho Jae-hyun) undergoes the procedure himself, in part out of solidarity, but also in the hope that, in sacrificing his own genitals, reconstructive surgery might become possible for his son (Seo Young-ju). When such a procedure initially seems impossible, sexual frustration comes to dominate the daily life of father and son, with the former falling into a series of humorous Google wormholes (with searches like “orgasm no penis”) while the latter stalks his father’s mistress (Lee Eun-woo, who also plays the mother) and develops a strange alliance with a group of young thugs. From here, Moebius finds even more baroque niches of body horror to explore; there are more severed penises and, once the father’s obsessive Googling finally pays off, a series of increasingly extreme sadomasochistic encounters.
If sequences like a man coming to climax from having a knife vigorously wiggled into his back exude an absurdist humor, what’s ultimately more shocking about Moebius are the scenes of genuine pathos. A perfect distillation of the film’s sympathetic approach to masculine anxiety arrives when, after being accused of rape and in holding at a local prison, the son unblinkingly beats his father to a pulp rather than have him expose his lack of manhood to his friends and arresting officers. In the aftermath of castration, the need to reconcile and guard one’s male identity supersedes all other concerns of safety and respectability for this otherwise smart and gentle young man. If the film’s title suggests a fluidity of identity between father and son (a fluidity finally manifested physically when the transplant of the former’s genitals onto the latter’s body is successfully achieved near the film’s end), it’s constantly threatened by the demands and insecurities of both men’s ego. In this sense, Moebius articulates a genuinely philosophical approach to its characters’ bodies and minds.
Unfortunately, however complex its understanding of masculine identity, Moebius consistently shortchanges its two female characters; that they’re played by the same actress, while impressive as a performative feat, is outright maddening in this context. Mother is a wine-chugging banshee utterly impervious to logic or compassion, while Mistress is the doe-eyed opposite, quietly subservient to the gruesome needs of her multiple sexual partners, her pleasure and very identity articulated only in relation to theirs. The over-simplicity of these characterizations is the sour aftertaste of an otherwise furiously engaging experience, a film that rigorously balances strategies of camp, critique, and sympathy even as its characters push themselves to annihilative extremes.