Spiritualism and Realism. The Representation of Violence in Kim Ki-duk's Movies

Thesis (M.A.), 2020

37 Pages, Grade: 5/5


Table of Content

I. Introduction

II. Korean Cinema and Kim Ki-duk
1. Introduction to Korean Cinema
2. Auteurism
3. Kim Ki-duk

III. Spiritualism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's movies
1. Spiritualism
2. Violence
3. Spiritualism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's movies
a. The use of Redemptive Violence
b. The concept of Confucianism, Buddhism and the power of silence by Kim Ki-duk

IV. Realism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's movies
1. Realism
2. Italian Neo-realism
3. Modernism
4. Realism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's movies
a. The stylistic use of Realism in Martin Scorsese's movies
b. The stylistic use of Realism in Kim Ki-duk's movies
c. The cinematic style of Violence by Martin Scorsese and Kim Ki-duk

V. Conclusion

VI. Filmography

VII. Bibliography


This research opens up a critical discussion regarding the representation of violence through spiritualism and realism in Kim Ki-duk's movies. It will project the similarities as well as the dissimilarities between Kim Ki-duk and Martin Scorsese based on spirituality in correspondence to the use of realism in a cinematic style. This sheds a light on the significances by portraying their cultural and political ideologies. Kim Ki-duk's effort is to portray spiritualism and realism; Kim Ki-duk does this by depicting Christianity along with Confucianism, Buddhism and the practice of silence, in addition to his adaptation of minimalistic style to portray violence. As a result, this research will conclude that Kim Ki-duk is a unique consequential illustrator of South Korea by translating realism in a symbolic manner, which will prove him an auteur.

Keywords: South Korean cinema, Auteurism, Kim Ki-duk, Martin Scorsese, Spiritualism, Realism, Violence.

I. Introduction:

In the past two decades in the field of film criticism, Kim Ki-duk gained attention from many scholars. His movies had many controversial topics like violence, Spiritualism and realism that interest a lot of scholars. His movies got world acclaim, especially in Europe, defining him as a master in what he does, and the way he reflects South Korean society in his movies. However, given the fact that this is a relatively new direction of research, there are only a few papers discussing the connection between Violence, Spiritualism and Realism related to Kim's work. There are also very few publications on the authenticity of his motivation to produce violent, but at the same time spiritual and realistic movies. It is significant that scholars, and readers understand the connection between the three concepts mentioned above. Therefore, further research is essential in this topic to map the language of his movies, in order to understand and analyze his work properly.

The importance of this topic roots in its practicality and applicability. As shown in some of the included research (Hye Seung Chung, 2012; Gateward, 2007), it is important for readers to create a new approach, and make a connection between Violence, Spiritualism and Realism. According to Kim Myung-ja (2007, p.244), Kim's films are considered to be an autobiographical writing with a film camera, which is why Kim Ki-duk describes each of his films as a sequence with his entire body of work.

In order to put my specific research into a broader context, this paper will first give a brief comprehensive view of South Korean cinema from 1950's till 1980's, overview the importance of the 90's and the birth of the New South Korean Cinema, which helped the birth of a new wave of South Korean filmmakers. It will also discuss the beginning of a new era of Korean film industry's dominance over East Asia. Further my thesis will discuss and analyze the background of the filmmaker that shaped him in order for him to establish a new language and style style in South Korean film industry which helped him to create a foundation in his work.

After studying the biography of the director, the paper will synthesize mainly the concepts of Spiritualism and violence in order to highlight the similarities and the differences between Martin Scorsese's work which represents the West, and Kim Ki-duk's which represents the East. The comparison will focus on two movies of each director, and underline the portrayal of Christianity and the redemptive violence, adapted by both filmmakers. It will also discuss different beliefs like Confucianism, Buddhism and other concepts like silence that Kim adapted in his work.

This thesis also focuses on Kim's approach of cinema that represents reality. Therefore, another comparison will be made, comparing Martin Scorsese and Kim Ki-duk and the significance of themes in cinema and film theory: the stylistic representation of reality in their work. The paper will study the representation of reality in two movies of each filmmaker. Finally, the paper will identify Kim Ki-duk as an auteur by using a distinctive style in the representation of Spiritualism, Realism and Violence which helped his work to become internationally acclaimed. The topics that Kim reflected in his films were understood by local audience, however his work portrayed a sense of morality that fits within the framework of a global environment.

The thesis will conclude by arguing that Kim Ki-duk is one of the most controversial filmmakers in Asia, with many inspirations and motivations. It will categorize him as an auteur by pinpointing the importance of portraying violence in movies, that primarily elevates or transcends the story and the characters, but in more profound sense portrays the story in a transparent reality.

II. Korean Cinema and Kim Ki-duk

1. Introduction to Korean Cinema

Korean cinema, considered a local cinema on the edge of collapsing in the late 1980's, has turned in 1990's to an international economic and cultural influence. It became one of the most dominant cinemas in East Asia and maybe in the whole continent. During 1930's, Japanese authorities banned the Korean language and Korean names from official use. The liberation period from Japanese colonization came around mid 1940's and after that, South Korean cinema became a mature industry in the late 1950's. During late 1960's and early 1970's, Seoul was home to active industries producing hundreds of films per year. It was in the mid-seventies when the cinematic period came to a crisis because the military government restructured and censored the film industry. For the next 20 years, all film industries had to follow strict rules and guidelines. The government demanded them to revamp the moral of the nation.

"The 90's was the birth of a new South Korean cinema, entering a golden age by producing around 200 films per year" (Gateward, 2007, p.4). The golden age started with the film industries reinventing themselves. Afterwards, with the formation of a democratic form of government, South Korean cinema started loosening its censorship. The government started supporting economically the new filmmakers to make new films in order to rescue the industry from falling apart. It was around the 2000's that Korean-made films accounted for more than 50% of the total box office. In order to serve cinephiles, the number of screening of movies in theaters increased from 404 in the 80's to 1,324 in 2000's. Apart from the market, the dark era (1950s-1970s) and the golden era (1990's) were both a reason for the birth of directors widely regarded as auteurs. The 90's helped filmmakers like Kim Ki-duk examine the problematics of representation through the issues of sexuality, desire and power.

2. Auteurism

Auteur, translated from the French, simply means "author". The connection between the term and cinema started in the 50's. "Does a film need to have an author? Perhaps, to qualify as art, a film needs an author, an artist (Hillier, 2006, p. 141)." I agree with Hillier, in a sense, that many films should include a dominant personality that shapes the film more than other films. Therefore, giving importance to producer and writers and stars of the film, the director has the final say over the realization of scenes. The director's job is to express his personality and individuality. As Sartre said: "One isn't a write for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way (Hillier, 1986, p. 141)." I agree that the filmmaker's job is to reflect originality, which does not lie in the subject matter he chooses, but the technique he employs. Accordingly, the director might invent something or create a new rule about shooting and editing. Nevertheless, this invention should also take place in the context of a long and developing history of textual conventions. Auteurism should be considered a triumph of the director, perhaps because it was more critical than theoretical. The 60's was the beginning of the director as superstar era, not only in Europe, with the French, but also in mainstream cinema. Filmmakers are no longer servant of a preexisting texts, but they are the creative part of the whole product. The filmmakers' expression of "an existentialist humanism inflected by phenomenology" (Stam, 2000, p.83) is what makes them unique. The French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, he resembled the film to who made it, therefore it is the film who reflects its creators' style and personality. In the 90's, Kim Ki-duk got world acclaim and became a director who is known for his significant style and the language of his movies. Thus, the purpose of this thesis is to prove that Kim Ki-duk is considered an auteur.

3. Kim Ki-duk

To narrow it down, Kim Ki-duk awards winning director, got world acclaim after submitting his movies to international film festivals especially in Europe. He was one of many directors who helped the industry to switch from a peripheral national cinema to an international central, and approachable industry. Unlike other educated filmmakers, coming from middle class family, Kim has not benefited from a formal institutional education, either generally or in film studies. After dropping out of school, he worked, in his teenage years, in metal factories, according to the demand of his father. Later on, he dropped out of the factory work and volunteered to join the Marine Corps. He realized that the service demands significant physical and mental work, he then quit to volunteer in a Baptist church, attending classes to become a preacher. His time spent at the church helped him to develop love for painting which helped him, later on, to use all his savings and leave to Paris and become a sidewalk artist. During his stay in Paris, he got inspired by many films, he took up screenwriting. All of this paved the way for Kim's entry into the film industry. He is known for his sweeping style, and low budget films. He created, by the help of his films, a border between the lower class and the bourgeois aesthetics to be more concerned about the social alienation in South Korean society. (Myung-ja, 2007, p.244) stated that his films are "autobiographical writing with a film camera", which is why Kim describes each of his films as a sequence within his entire body of work. I argue that it is significant to understand why the thesis discusses Kim's work. "As a self-trained visual artist with little formal training in filmmaking, Kim is a distinctive talent in world cinema (Chung, 2012, p.2)." According to Andre Bazin (1967, p. 13): "to pick, like a mirror, a glare of the world, too chaotic and accidental for being analyzed in itself [... ] reality produced by the cinema at will which it organizes, is the reality of the world which we are part and which the film receives a model at once spatial and temporal." I agree with Bazin's statement, and I argue what makes Kim Ku-Duk a unique filmmaker is the role that he plays by making reality and abstract coexist. Kim Ki-duk stated in multiple interviews that his job as a filmmaker is to create a fictional film based on real events, stories, and characters. Therefore, he considers his work a reflection of Korean society, and his job as a filmmaker is to highlight the problems that individuals face living in society. He is best known for his violent acts and the cruelty of his films. He was even often called a psychopath (M. Yecies, 2002) by depicting the dark side of South Korea, and portraying highly violet scenes. He frequently invites his audience to investigate the difference between morality and immorality, reality and fantasy. Critics question the possibility or the impossibility of ethical representation, Therefore, in order to create a true reflection of society, he focuses on representing transcendent spiritual symbolism in his work.

III. Spiritualism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's movies

1. Spiritualism

Spiritualism, an ideology, is used by many filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Martin Scorsese and Krzysztof Kieslowski, in order to connect the material world to the supernatural world. Traditionally, religion has been synonymous with spirituality. If the first one promotes loyalty to a single fundamental faith, the second one taps various beliefs systems, respecting all but refusing to grant domination to anyone. The main question that should be asked is whether every spiritual film is considered a religious film? According to Paul Schrader: "Transcendental Style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretation of reality" (1972, p.42). I agree with Schrader that the spiritual films do not have to be religious in case of spiritual existence. It is a technique that has been used to draw the viewer into contact with the indescribable, the invisible, the holy other. The filmmaker's purpose is not to seek solely to entertain the viewer, but to draw viewers closer to the mocked non-material world, into the mystery. Therefore, the transcendental style is a process; it is a liturgy; it is an option. Many filmmakers, as Schrader described in his book, use this style to elevate the story, making it spiritual. On the other hand, many other filmmakers choose to stay simple, using basic style of cinematography in order to create a story. With this argument, I agree with what Gilles Deleuze (1989) have termed a "Theory of Cinema as Conceptual Practice". It might be that every movie might illustrate spirituality, but the development of the portrayal of the film itself is a spiritual practice. Therefore, this argumentation helps the movie to make the spectator an active participant by making them create their own movie in their own mind, becoming a part of the creative process of the film. Spirituality can be the key to rob the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power. It investigates religion, ethics and metaphysical issues. It uses faith and belief, salvation and redemption, as a weapon in order to transcend. The following chapter will study how can spirituality, which is supernatural and invisible, be achieved by a material act, an act of violence.

2. Violence

The representation of violence in cinema has been a topic of decency of what is proper for the subject matter of the film. Since its initiation, cinema has been fascinated with violence. It is certainly associated with censorship, which cinema later focused on showing less violence and more sexual images of gender liberation. Hence, cinema examines violence as a tolerable form of human expression, in situations such as warfare and battles, in order to settle resentment. It takes different forms from the use of guns in neo-noir movies like Taxi Driver (1976), through torturing animals in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring (2003), to self-destruction in Raging Bull (1980) and Pieta (2012). The acceptance of each one has different variations. The regulatory process mostly endorses violent images in touch with current political and moral values, but prohibits those who oppose capitalism and conceptions of social normality. The question rises whether violence in film became pointless, boring and shameless. Violence lacks the ethical aspects and the shock effects. It puts the different nature of filmic approach to violence in question whether apathy and hatred for mankind are the ultimate purpose of Hollywood mainstream cinema. Maybe it represents desperation as economic conditions get worse, America's tolerance for other countries becomes more disregardful in the new globalized world order. Thus, the following chapter will compare Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) by Martin Scorsese with 3-iron (2004) and Pieta (2012). It will study whether the usage of violence is pointless as mentioned previously or it has a spiritual purpose, to methodically achieve redemption.

3. Spiritualism and Violence in Martin Scorsese's and Kim Ki-duk's Movies

Martin Scorsese and Kim Ki-duk both approached the concept of redemptive violence based on Christian beliefs. Thus, they can be compared by that usage through the narration of their films. However, what makes Kim Ki-duk different is his approach to redemption by different beliefs like Confucianism, Buddhism and concepts like the practice of silence.

3.a. The Use of Redemptive Violence

Martin Scorsese came from a working-class family, where his father and his mother were not well-educated. Therefore, reading was no option in the family; that is why everything to him was more enjoyable in moving images. He spent his time in movie theatres and church. From an early age, he displayed a profound faith and an obsession with sin, repentance and ritual (Sterritt, 2009, p.73:77). In order to become a Catholic priest, he would initially join a catholic school at fourteen years of age however he decided to leave one year later. Later on, his filming attempts preserved his very distinctive style of "unconventional Christianity". Since the beginning of his journey in film industry (1967), Scorsese felt that it is essential that all the crew, especially himself as a director, and the cinematographer, focus on the visual elements. He thought the visual element to be the most crucial. It is fascinating and provoking, people would always remember it. However, if it was weak, it will be forgotten in few minutes. In his work, he focuses on elements like close-ups, lighting and framing that have emotional impact on the spectator. As he argues in an interview: "I saw a great deal of violence, I saw a great deal of emotional and psychological violence, religious violence. It is a thing like that leaves an impression on you, and it doesn't leave you" (Martin, Creating silence (interview), 2016).

Perhaps Machismo is the most dominant theme in Scorsese's work. The journey of the protagonists in his movies like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, is a long journey based on suffering, blood, and violence in order to achieve redemption. The search for redemption focuses on the character's journey, experiencing a violent process to purge himself. It can take materialistic forms like blood. Therefore, violence represented in Scorsese's films focuses more on the individual than on the social point of view. The character might receive salvation, and in some other cases, he might gain it and then lose it. Such movies are a perfect way to explore the contentious subject of redemptive violence. Scorsese said: "Violence and physical pain is the only means by which redemption from a state of oppression, estrangement and suffering can be achieved" (Deacy, 2000, p.50). These elements are important in Scorsese's films; therefore, they are in a repetitive pattern. In Raging Bull, Jake La Motta, the protagonist, holds a complicated journey. He is an Italian-American midweight fighter, who has destroyed his relationship with his wife and his children through his self-destructive, obsessed anger, sexual jealousy and animistic hunger. Joey, Jake La Motta's well-meaning brother and supervisor who tries to help Jake fight against his existential dilemmas, is also featured in the film. Paul Schrader, the scriptwriter of the movie, declare that it is not true that the protagonist achieved redemption, but rather, the protagonist is still the same self-destructive person at the end as he is at the beginning (Shrader, 2004, p. 133). After watching the movie, I argue that the protagonist achieved redemption at the end of the movie. Jake's achieving redemption does not start while he submits himself in the boxing ring, in a kind of violent ritual. The scene of Jake in the boxing ring holds many visual elements like the sacraments and the crucifixion. The transformation starts when he got locked up in a jail cell, lonely and alienated from his beloved. It is then that Jack achieves redemption. He achieved redemption by losing his way in the middle of the movie, and then get back to it. Thus, the boxing ring was the playground to his preparation in order to achieve redemption. The director portrays Jake's use of aggression in order to make the spectator understands why the protagonist wants to use the boxing ring to penalize him not only but readily tolerate it. "I felt like that Jake used everybody to punish himself, especially in the ring... He takes the punishment for what he feels he's done wrong", says Scorsese (Thompson and Christie, 1989, p. 80). Jake's physical torture is identical to salvation and presents a boxing ring reward for his sins. One of the scenes demonstrates the way in which Jakes approaches his opponents. "Here in the viewer's first look La Motta goes too far, his punishment, a soil on his perfect record analogous to the original sin on his soul" (LoBrutto, 2008, p.229). Jake permits serious punishment for his opponent Jimmy Reeves. The fight ends with Reeves' success but the viewers wonder why Jake chose to endure this punishment but was not motivated to act to ensure victory. It is a frequent theme in the rest of the film. This is the first instance in which Jake suggests physical sacrifice. There seems to be no explicable reason for such a quick turn in the contest, and one can only presume that Jake is enabling himself to be destroyed. He understood that his soul should be redeemed in that boxing ring, whereas his body should be left behind to suffer in order to be redeemed.

In the second film, Taxi Driver, the movie deals with loneliness, self-hatred, obsession, and the need to belong to a society. The film offered an insight and analysis on criminal life in America, by depicting the post-Vietnamese situation. The film's story is of a confused, mentally unstable taxi driver, who ends up in a ruthless red district for recognition. He got caught up with most of the discontent of the 1970s as Vietnam's political structure collapsed and a fresh waves of outrage Vietnamese came into focus. All emotions that make up the protagonist Travis, are emotions that the spectator has to deal with. The spectator's role is to either accept the protagonist's existential complex, his yearning to be included in society, nor reject him, the same way that the story of the movie does. Travis is intrigued by Betsy, legislator and presidential candidate Charles Palantine's political operative. After observing her chat on her office window with worker Tom, Travis steps in as an excuse to talk to her and asks her out for breakfast. He takes her then to see a pornographic film that insults her and she leaves him alone. His multiple failed attempts to resolve by dispatching flowers and apologizing on his phone are dismissed, leaving him angry and persuaded that she is exactly as the "cold" people that he hates in the community. The story continues with him driving aimlessly around the streets looking for something to arrive and give his life a sense of purpose. He finds his target Iris, a young girl, a prostitute. He feels a need of making a move to help Iris. Travis's preparations become much like a ritual. He prepares himself to go and save her. The imagery of fire in the scene when he prepares himself suggest a purification of Travis as he begins to cut ties with Betsy, by burning the flowers, as a last shred of a normalcy within him. It is a rebirth, a baptism, as he cleanses himself, preparing himself to die one way or another. Therefore, the purpose of using violence was that he convinced himself that he was going to die now with a purpose, not as an aimless taxi driver.

By highlighting redemptive violence and Christianity as the dominant topics in Scorsese's film, we start analyzing Kim Ki-duk's movies Pieta and 3-iron, in order to achieve the connection between the two filmmakers. The story of Pieta is straightforward, but at the same time, it holds different meanings. The film's brief and pointed post-credit entry enlighten us promptly that things will not end well. The first scene starts with showing some metal chain and a wheel chaired man hanging himself in a garage. After that scene we introduce the main character Lee Kang-do, a pitiless and outrageous debt collector for an equally brutal moneylender who has some expertise in constraining his account holders to submit protection extortion to pay back what they owe him. Living a messy existence in the same slum as many of his unfortunate account holders, it shows that Kang-Do has no companion. Later on, he encounters an odd lady (Cho Min-Soo) who starts stalking him. She confronts him to be his mother who in the past abandoned him. He assaults her, hastening a progression of occasions that raise doubt about her presence and identity. After regaining his emotions and getting attached to her, he was placed in a position when he becomes the victim. He watches the lady trying to jump from a building which was a wake-up call to the protagonist to realize that the most important person in his life, the person he cares about is about to die. In this scene, the director shows that the mother is alone in the building, therefore, there is no one pushing her to jump, but from the protagonist's perspective, he thinks that she is tortured by one of his former account holders, which he tortured once in the past. He starts begging for mercy, asking the non-existent person for forgiveness. It is a state of frustration for both the mother and Kang-Do. The mother, seeking for revenge for her son, who hanged himself in the beginning of the movie, she takes a moment before she jumps and asks her dead son for forgiveness. It is because of her attachment to Kang-do, that made her seek for forgiveness. "It is an inevitable sensation of guilt. It puts the character in front of an invisible force that judges and punishes him" (Ricoeur, 1974, p.429). The mother finally understood the reason behind Kang-Do's cruelty. It is the lack of maternal love. The feelings that she grew toward Kang-Do made her realize that she was unfair by sharing the maternal emotion with her real dead son and Kang-Do. Both of the characters sincerely ask for redemption, for forgiveness. The salvation of the mother was to jump in order to be relieved. On the other hand, Kang-do, after the loss of the mother, he attaches his body to a car of one of his tortured clients. The client, without noticing, drags Kang-Do's body around the city. It was a gesture of punishment, a way to suffer, in order to die and be redeemed.

3-iron, the second Kim's movie, helps us to understand how the director represented spirituality and violence, in order to transcend and redeem the characters. The story takes the spectator on a journey, with our male protagonist Tae-Seok, who breaks into other people's houses, in order to find shelter. Therefore, he is not a thief because of what he does at their place is far from what thieves usually do. He has such love for other people's belongings. He fixes whatever he finds broken. He washes dirty clothes if they have dirty laundry. Nevertheless, everything changes one day, when he breaks into a luxurious home, and he meets the woman of the house who was violently beaten by her husband. Violent acts start with the image of the beaten woman, a victim of domestic violence. The violence continues with Tea-Seok, who punishes her husband. As Kim Ki-duk said: "We are all empty houses, waiting for someone to open the lock and set us free. One day, our wish comes true. A man arrives like a ghost and takes me away from my confinement, and I follow, without doubts, without reserve, until I find my new destiny" (Menon, 2007). I agree what Kim's states; thus, it is logical for Tea-Seok to come back to her place with a golf ball, in order to save the female protagonist and escape together. They start inhabiting people's places together for example a boxer's, and a photographer's. Their relationship is silent, but they communicate with their bodies. After getting arrested by the police, Tae-Seok spends his time in jail meditating in order to transcend and become a ghost. It is shocking the ability of some people walking lightly around us leaving no trace. They become heroes, they are subversive liberators. In this case, Tae-Seok became a ghost, and he is the savor and liberator of the woman.

The ending can be explained on two different levels. The first one is that the male protagonist, transcended, and became a spirit, that floats all over this dimension, and that is why the cop who arrested him, and came inside of his cell, could not see him. It is the same situation in the last scene of the movie, the female protagonist comes back home and stays with her husband. Tae-Seok is there as well, but cannot be seen by her husband. Nevertheless, we can reimagine as if it was all in Sun-Hwa's (the female protagonist) imagination. Moreover, because she was in love with him, she started imagining him living with her in the same house, without her husband noticing his physical presence. The body of the female character transforms. Sun-Hwa's body is seen in a photograph in her house at the beginning of the movie, now is deformed by the character after she occupied the house of the photographer who took that picture in the first place. In order to escape her body, she recomposes the photograph taken by the photographer. The change continues when she returns home, she stops her husband from touching her. It is not her body anymore. It is a reshaped body with a new transformation in order to take herself into a non-materialistic aspect. She suffered from her husband's violence, and now she is seeking redemption. As a result of the transformation that the male and female protagonists, their bodies become weightless matter, which can be seen in the last scene where both of them are on a beam balance, and it shows zero. No weight which means no bodies, but only spirits floating. Their journey proves that after suffering, the only option is to transcend, to escape their corporeality.


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Spiritualism and Realism. The Representation of Violence in Kim Ki-duk's Movies
Eötvös Loránd University  (Faculty of Humanities)
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spiritualism, realism, representation, violence, ki-duk, movies
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Julien Mtanios (Author), 2020, Spiritualism and Realism. The Representation of Violence in Kim Ki-duk's Movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/906622


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