Posted: 04/01/2004




by Del Harvey

This DVD is available for purchase at

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Mount Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. The mountain itself evokes images of beauty and grace, but also loneliness, isolation, and even despair. These same words easily describe the movie Kilimanjaro.

Directed by Seung-ook Oh, the story opens with newly out-of-work Lee Hae-chul (Park Shin-yang from Uninvited) in a room with his twin brother, police investigator Lee Hae-shik (also Park Shin-yang). Hae-shik has been tied-up and beaten, and is drifting in and out of consciousness. Through the dim light of the room we see blood and bodies scattered around the room—these are Hae-chul’s children. Shots ring out, and the children are dead. Hae-chul wakes his brother up long enough for him to witness the final act of Hae-chul’s desperation as he kills himself, but not before blaming his own brother for what has happened.

When he is relieved of the ensuing investigation, and then suspended for six months under suspicion of not having investigated with complete honesty because the suspect was his brother, Hae-shik decides to return to the small seaside town where the brothers grew up. Once there he is mistaken for his brother. Not a good thing, since his brother upset a number of people before he left, including a former childhood friend who is now a local gang leader, Bong. When he happens upon his brother’s former closest friend and gang leader, Thunder (Ahn Sung-ki—Nowhere to Hide), he pays to get Bong to let him go. He never tells Thunder that he is actually Hae-shik, and then does not bother to correct him when it’s assumed he is Hae-chul, possibly because he finally feels acceptance. But this is difficult to tell, since so much of the story is simply laid out for us without the necessary exposition to explain many subtleties.

Does that mean Kilimanjaro is a flawed film? Possibly. But it is nonetheless engaging and dynamic for its tragic tones and depth of character. Actor Park Shin-yang, in dual roles, does an admiral job of portraying two sides of the same coin, so to speak.

The sense of isolation and despair is created through a number of highly effective methods, including a somnambulant score, a rather drab flair in production design, and finally the cinematography, which matches both the score and design in creating a sense of creeping coldness.

Like many foreign films, Kilimanjaro suffers in the translation of subtitles. Because so much is left untranslated or is poorly described, the social and cultural differences between Korea and other countries is left unexplained. It’s not all that different from watching a film in a foreign language without any subtitles whatsoever. And that is the greatest shame of all.

Still, Kilimanjaro is a very strong drama and worthy of viewing if you are interested in foreign film and specifically the new film emerging from Korea.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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