Will the real Kim Ki-Duk please stand up? Because some of us who recently fell in love with this Korean writer-director based solely on his profound and mystical ''Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring" are feeling a little confused by what we're discovering in his suddenly worthy catalog of previous works.
''Bad Guy," from 2001, is a perfect example of the Kim that few Americans know, and frankly might not be all that eager to meet.
The film centers on a character named Han-gi (Cho Je-Hyun), who wastes little time showing just how ill-behaved he can be. In a riveting opening sequence, the enigmatic street tough sits next to a pretty college student on a bench and leers at her until she moves away. When the woman's boyfriend shows up, Han-gi taunts them by planting a brutal kiss on her and refusing to apologize, which earns him a beating from the soldiers looking on. She then finishes him off by spitting in his face.
Not a smart move.
Back in his seedy Seoul neighborhood, Han-gi is a strong, silent pimp who knows a little something about revenge. In short order this college girl, named Sun-hwa (Seo Won), finds herself set up to commit a petty theft and then forced into prostitution when the victim turns around and extorts her. Han-gi, the orchestrator of her downfall, watches with growing affection from behind a two-way mirror while Sun-hwa becomes acquainted with her sorry new life in the brothel. Yes, it's a different kind of love story.
We're frequently reminded that people who have strayed far from grace can still have redemptive qualities, but what's annoying about ''Bad Guy" is that its despicable leading man isn't just absolved of his sins by virtue of comparison and circumstance, he's made superhuman to ensure that the abuse continues, even though it supposedly makes him feel bad.
As much as Kim likes flirting with the supernatural, it's a random and unconvincing element in this early effort, unlike the intriguing way it's used in his newest film, ''3-Iron" (opening locally tomorrow). Kim has a similar affinity for mute lead characters, which Cho obliges expertly, but Han-gi is a strange mix of too hard, too soft, and too busy brooding to command respect, so instead he grows tiresome.
It's always interesting to see where an accomplished filmmaker started, in order to appreciate how far he's come. In ''Bad Guy," Kim Ki-Duk is still feeling his way with mixed success, and learning from his mistakes.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.