Updated through 5/17.
"Arirang, a kind of morbid pseudo-therapy session/confessional from director Kim Ki-duk, is one of those self-indulgent messes only a very talented but screwed up auteur could make when he hits rock-bottom," writes Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door. "At 100 minutes, this feature-length conversation between Kim and his shadow seems to go on forever, traversing all sorts of traumatic ground from his beleaguered past…. Shot on a crummy HD cam, Arirang looks as bad as it sounds. Before the film screened, Kim got onstage and said, 'The film is like a self-portrait of myself,' but no one could have guessed what a delusional examination it would be for the obviously mentally damaged director. Oh, and Kim builds his own gun out of spare parts. Derangement incarnate."
"Kim's career came to a halt in 2008, when during the production of Dream, an actress nearly died accidentally in a scene in which her character was being hanged," explains Barbara Scharres, blogging for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Shocked and badly shaken, the director relates that he suddenly lost his nerve and the will to work. In one of his tearful close-ups he confesses, 'I had thought of death as a mystical dream, a door to pass through. After Dream, I realized that death could be a crime cutting short someone's expectations.' Arirang is [a] film that will likely have specialized appeal to those who are familiar with Kim's work, but it is gripping stuff. His terror, self-accusation, and remorse provide and intimate look at a soul turned inside out."
"An experience that can be likened only to being stuck next to a drunk in a bar who keeps reminding you he used to be famous, all his friends are bastards and he now understands the meaning of life, pic might have proved therapeutic to make, but it's a grind to watch, even for fans of the maverick writer-director's work," writes Leslie Felperin in Variety. "Further evidence, as if it were needed, that digital is both the liberation of low-budget filmmaking and the enabler of self-indulgence, the pic was made entirely by Kim, according to credits culled from the production notes… The action, such as it is, mostly consists of footage of Kim going about his daily routines — chopping wood, making food, voiding his bowels in the snow outside — in and around the mountaintop shack he's been holed up in for some time."
For Dan Fainaru, though, writing in Screen, Arirang "is a thought-provoking tour de force, the far out experiment of a filmmaker in crisis, asking himself crucial questions about himself, his profession and his past achievements, in a manner that will most likely put off general film audiences but should reach every film school and festivals in the world, its topics to be discussed by anyone who would like to dedicate his or her life to making or even watching movies…. Whether everything Kim Ki-duk says in this film is a spontaneous, sincere reflection of a troubled conscience or a carefully thought out script, one will probably never know. However, there is no doubt that the questions are perfectly valid and need to be addressed by anyone who considers himself a conscientious artist."
"Initially, as Kim delves into anecdotes from his career, Arirang plays like a prolonged bonus DVD," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. "He discusses the screenplay he wrote for an unrealized war epic that nearly starred Willem Dafoe, and recalls how his former assistant director Jang Hun eventually directed Kim's screenplay for Rough Cut. Over time, however, Kim transitions from specific memories to solely professing abstract yearnings…. Kim provides his own soundtrack by routinely singing the Korean folk song 'Arirang' — sometimes in a soft melodic key, other times belting it out as a mournful wail. Eventually, the tune leads him to tears, but Kim acknowledges his frailty by cutting to a shot in which he watches the weepy footage with a sober expression. 'Why's this fool crying?' he asks…. But the filmmaker has essentially made this project critic-proof by claiming ambivalence toward its flaws. 'I want to make a film,' he says. 'I don't care if it's boring.'"
Micropsia collects grades.
Update: "When Lars von Trier felt this despondent, he made Antichrist," notes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "I thought it was terrible, but at least it was an actual film. Arirang, on the other hand, is precisely the sort of self-indulgent, useless, 'therapeutic' one-man tripe I feared might become commonplace with the advent of cheap video cameras."
Update, 5/15: "The sour, malcontent attitude may be his devious way of playing up his bad-boy image to the cine-literati, but there's precious little with which even an arthouse-inclined audience can identify with," warns Maggie Lee in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 5/17: "It is a nakedly personal film, and it is also almost completely unwatchable." Drew McWeeney at HitFix.