Kim Ki-duk’s film “Dream” complicates the notion of Korean cinema and our categorization of it as such. Already from the language used in the film, Korean cinema as solely Korean-language cinema is problematized with Jin’s use of Japanese. Moreover, there is a mutual understanding of the language between the characters who speak Korean and Jin. He understands Korean while other characters understand Japanese. Despite the difference in language, the characters can fluently communicate, which shows that a difference in language impedes communication, and in fact, the characters that speak the same language, such as Ran and the police officers or investigators, have more difficulty with understanding each other. For example, when she tries to explain that she was not the one driving the car, the officers’ refusal to understand posits that even with a shared language understanding is not necessarily the only result. Their language similarity functions, therefore, as a site of difference rather than similarity. Without the myth of an ahistorical unchanging language, maintaining that a quality of Korean cinema is the linguistic aspect is problematic. In other words, Korean cinema and Korean-language cinema cannot be conflated.
A national Korean cinema is also problematic throughout Kim’s film. If Korean national cinema is that which has explicitly Korean referents or references to Koreanness in some essentializing way, “Dream” questions this idea. Indeed, the characters, such as Ran and her ex-boyfriend, are ethnically Korean and known as Korean actors and actresses with the exception of Jin. Ran’s Koreanness is also, perhaps, highlighted by her job. She makes different styles of hanbok, the traditional style dress for women, or clothes that incorporate a hanbok-like style. Yet, her job is not simply a referent to a Korean culture. The dresses she creates, however, are not completely traditional, but include whimsical aspects. Kim’s film and these differently styled dresses are not attempts to overturn ideas of Korean culture. Taking a closer look at the style of clothing the Ran creates, it points to the creation of a particular kind of space where there is a possibility for co-existence of the non-Korean and Korean in one place. This kind of particular space is also reflected in the idea of a dream, which can be read as a space where the possible and impossible can co-exist. Furthermore, Kim’s film seems to claim that the space of dreams and reality are not separate but they also co-exist and merge together through the connection between Jin and Ran in that whatever Jin dream has extremely real consequences for Ran.
The dream and the butterfly in the film also illustrate the idea that there is a convergence of reality and the dream world. At the end of the film, Ran literally becomes a butterfly, which would be impossible in a strictly “real” world, but due to the carnivalesque atmosphere within the film, her physical body disappears as she hangs herself in her prison cell as she becomes a yellow butterfly. The butterfly and the dream can also be read as an allusion to Zhuang-zi’s connection between life and dreams. In Zhuang-zi’s version, he awakens and explains that he had a dream about being a butterfly, but this dream actually leads him to question whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. In effect, these two existences are one in the same.