Kim Ki-duk is the enfant terrible of South-Korean (arthouse) cinema. Even though South-Korean cinema is known to push the boundaries (often of good taste, but that's my personal opinion), Ki-duk is always struggling to get his films through the censors. And no matter how well-respected he may be internationally, even after 20+ films he still needs to work real hard to get the necessary funds for a new film.
Ki-duk started off mid 90s. His earliest films were diamonds in the rough, almost completely void of stylistic qualities and relying solemnly on unique characters and rugged settings. Ki-duk's main characters are always enigmatic, hard to predict and ultimately self-destructive, but they help to set his films apart from the rest. Ag-o (Crocodile), Yasaeng Dongmul Bohoguyeog (Wild Animals), Paran Daemun (Birdcage Inn) and Shilje Sanghwang (Real Fiction) are all worth watching, but they are clearly the works of someone still figuring out his place.
Seom (The Isle) marks the start of Ki-duk's international conquest. It's also the first film in his oeuvre with clear poetic qualities. The crazy characters are still present, there are still plenty of scenes that can be described as twisted and/or shocking, but there's a softer side that makes for a unique tension. In the following years Ki-duk would hone his skills with films like Suchwiin Bulmyeong (Address Unknown), Nabbeun Namja (Bad Guy) and Hae Anseon (Coast Guard), all working up to his first big "hit".
2003 saw the release of Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring), one of Ki-duk's most revered films. It's the start of a golden period for Ki-duk, including releases of Bin-jip (3-Iron), Samaria (Samaritan Girl) and Hwal (The Bow), all personal favorites that fine-tuned Ki-duk's trademark style. These aren't quite my all-time favorite Ki-duk films, but the quality is consistently high nonetheless.
Shi Gan was a small setback. While the plot was interesting and challenging, there was a remarkable amount of dialogue and the characters just didn't gel. Luckily he quickly scrambled back to his feet and released Soom (Breath) and Bi-mong (Dream), my two favorite Ki-duk films. Things weren't all well though. A near-fatal accident on the set of Bi-mong led to a dire and dark period in Ki-duk's life.
He suffered a depression and retreated to live a secluded life. How do we know? Well, he documented the whole thing in Arirang, a (semi-staged?) documentary by Ki-duk, about Ki-duk, shot as he was recovering from his depression. A strange piece of film that offers a rare view in the director's personal life. In combination with Arirang there's also Amen, a film that wasn't intended for public display but ultimately found its way to the masses. An interesting project, if only because it was meant as a stepping stone back into the world of commercial cinema.
Ki-duk recovered but some darkness clearly remained. Pieta and Moi-bi-woo-seu (Moebius) see the director return to form, but there's a harsher, meaner undercurrent compared to his more popular films. They're every bit as good though, as long as you can handle Ki-duk's darker side. Finally there's Ki-duk's entry in the Venice 70 anthology, a project centered around the future of cinema. Sadly it's a piece of throwaway garbage that has little or nothing to do with with the theme of the anthology (to be fair, many other shorts had the same problem, the project failed in its entirety).
Kim Ki-duk is a unique director, a man with typical traits (mysterious, impenetrable characters, minimal dialogue, harsh violence covered by a layer of poetic beauty, rich symbolism) who struggled with his own ups and down and wasn't afraid to involve his audience to pull himself back together. It's probably best to start with one of his softer films (Bin-jip, Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom ) and start from there, but apart from his entry in Venice 70 Ki-duk hasn't made a bad film yet.