Kim Ki-young is one of the most eccentric figures in Korean cinema. In a career lasting nearly four decades, he created gloriously grotesque, floridly melodramatic films that have drawn comparisons to the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. Many of Kim's films were financed by his wife's dentistry practice, allowing him to give full flower to his idiosyncratic ideas. He found his way to film directing by a very circuitous route. Born in Seoul during the period of Japanese occupation, Kim spent his early years in Pyongyang (now part of North Korea). His creativity was encouraged from a young age by his two sisters, both of whom studied art and dance. At Pyongyang National High School, he excelled at writing, painting, and playing violin and piano, but his ambition at the time leaned toward medicine. After graduating in 1940, Kim applied to medical school, but was rejected. He moved to Japan, making his living as a cook while studying to retake his medical school exams. It was in Japan that he was bitten by the film bug. He began attending plays and movies at a theater in Kyoto where film classics were regularly shown. Along with numerous Japanese films, he saw many films from the West, including Josef von Sternberg's Morocco and Fritz Lang's M, which would have a profound effect on his later style.
Returning to Korea in 1941, Kim began an intense study of drama, developing a taste for the Greek classics, along with the plays of Henryk Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill. He fled to Japan briefly in 1945 to avoid the military draft, then returned in 1946 and formed a theater company called "The Little Orchid." He also enrolled in Seoul Medical School to study dentistry, all the while continuing to stage plays such as Ibsen's Ghosts and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Kim graduated in 1950. When the Korean War broke out, he accepted a job making newsreel documentaries for the United States Information Service (USIS). The money from this job allowed him to marry Kim Yu-bong, a fellow dental school graduate. Drawing on the experience he gained from making such documentaries as Diary of the Navy and I Am a Truck (and with equipment borrowed from USIS), he directed his first feature, The Box of Death (1955), which was also the first feature made in Korea using synchronous sound.
Kim formed his own production company in 1956 and began cranking out the melodramas that were then the staple of Korean popular cinema, but it wasn't until 1960 that he made his first real splash with The Housemaid. A tale of murderous sexual obsession set in a nightmarish house right out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, it provided a stylistic and thematic template for many of his later films, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Korean films ever made. Treading a fine line between modernist innovation and B-movie horror, subsequent films like The Insect Woman (1972), Woman of Fire (1971, remade in 1982), Promise of the Flesh (1975), and Carnivore (1984), all boast over-the-top gore and psychosexual nastiness.
Kim made over 30 films in all, ranging from the low-budget horror quickie Killer Butterfly, which features the 2,000-year-old skeleton of a Mongolian virgin, to the somewhat more staid Iodo, about a woman's journey to a magical island. By the 1990s, Kim's films had fallen into obscurity, unknown but to a hardcore group of tape-trading cult-film buffs. He was rediscovered in the late '90s thanks to a retrospective organized by the Pusan International Film Festival that subsequently traveled to Europe and the United States. Kim was only able to enjoy his newfound success briefly; he tragically died with his wife in a house fire in 1998. It is perhaps fitting that Kim always claimed to love the house specifically because he believed it was haunted.