How much of what you look like determines who you really are? In Kim Ki-duk’s Time, Seh-hee has been dating Ji-woo for two years and she is worried that he is losing interest. “Do you get tired of the way I look?” she asked. A loaded question if ever there was and one that Ji-woo fails to answer satisfactorily.
And then she’s gone. For six months. Plastic surgery is an “everyday” procedure in this vision of modern-day Korea with a six month recovery time. The doctor cautions Seh-hee that he cannot make her more beautiful, she is beautiful enough. But no, she just wants to look different. Unrecognisable.
She “comes back” as See-hee (a subtle enough name change I didn’t pick at first, I thought they were the same name) and does indeed look different. It is a credit to both actresses that we accept without question they are the “same” person. They behave similarly despite looking differently. See-hee (the “new” girl) tries to woo Ji-woo (pardon the pun) however runs into difficulty when she realises that he is desperately lonely eschewing other women to pine his lost love (Seh-hee). Mind you, without ever revealing how exactly, Seh-hee/See-hee has been observing Ji-woo from a distance (stalking is the legal term) and warning off any would be suitors.
When See-hee appears wearing a Seh-hee face mask the mood is a mix of ridiculous and creepy. The truth comes crashing down on Ji-woo as he feels used and betrayed.
My take is that a person with poor self esteem (such as the one potrayed by Seh-hee) projects their self-loathing on to others and cannot or will not see themselves as others do. Ji-woo may have felt that his relationship with Seh-hee was getting stale but how she looked was not his issue. Her bitter and aggressive outbursts early in the film as Seh-hee are repeated later as See-hee. It is here perhaps that she realises it’s what’s inside that counts.
So, how does this resolve ? In a fit of pique, Ji-woo goes off to the plastic surgeon to change his looks. See-hee thinks that he might be doing this for her and their relationship and impatiently waits for him to reappear after six months. She accosts every man who is approximately the same size to find the man she loves but he doesn’t appear again.
Devastated, she troops back into the plastic surgeon again and comes out unrecognisable. Ji-woo won’t know what she looks like even if he does come looking.
In a slightly strange twist to the ending, time seems to have looped back in on itself like a mobius strip. While the ending does not influence the beginning as such, perhaps it is the director’s way of saying that the issues surrounding our identity and dramas we face in life do not just go away. They are just as present at the end as at the start. As old Uncle Remus used to say to Brer Rabbit, “you can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”