by Mel Valentin
Over the course of a relatively short, if prolific, career (eleven films in ten years), South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring," "Samaritan Girl," "The Isle") has made films that defy simple classification, often combining elements from wildly disparate genres and conventions (e.g., “art” film, horror, crime drama, etc.) with a painterly eye for visual composition (Kim studied painting in France). His latest film, "3-Iron" (“Bin-jip”), may be easier to classify (it borrows certain, recognizable tropes from the ennui-soaked European art films made during the 1960s), but it nonetheless makes for a unique, even poignant examination of existential alienation, rebellion (against social conventions and stifling, everyday routine), while making an equally strong case for intimacy and authenticity.Tae-suk (Hee Jae), a drifter unmoored from society (he has no visible means of support, nor does he have a family or circle of friends), wanders from empty apartment (or house) to empty apartment. He’s a burglar who never steals anything. Tae-suk targets different neighborhoods, seemingly at random, by leaving restaurant menus at each residence. When he returns, hours later, if the menu hasn’t been removed or discarded, he breaks into the apartment or house, and makes himself at home. He eats from the refrigerator, watches television, bathes, and otherwise adopts the role of the apartment renter or homeowner. As a form of repayment, he washes the owner’s clothes or repairs broken electronic equipment. Tae-suk’s behavior, of course, carries with it certain risks, most importantly the risk of being discovered by the renter or homeowner.
"Fans of New Korean Cinema, Ki-duk Kim has given us another marvel."
Enter Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee), a distraught, battered housewife. Tae-suk enters her house, under the assumption that its occupants are on vacation or away on business. As Tae-suk settles into eccentric domesticity, Sun-hwa watches him from a distance, avoiding him while she weighs and judges his intentions. Soothed by his non-threatening behavior, she announces his presence as he sleeps in her bed. Startled, Tae-suk prepares to leave, but not before the phone rings. Sun-hwa’s husband, a serial abuser, calls, promising to return. He does, allowing Tae-suk to witness another assault. Roused from indifference, Tae-suk uses the 3-Iron of the title (a generally little-used golf-club) in response. Rather than use the golf club as a weapon, Tae-suk uses golf balls, sped on to their destination by Tae-suk’s drives. Sun-hwa and Tae-suk leave together.
Sun-hwa joins Tae-suk as he searches for and breaks into unoccupied apartments and houses. What follows is an idiosyncratic courtship, as Sun-hwa begins to participate in the Tae-suk’s role-playing. Their courtship, like the scenes that precede it, develops wordlessly (a dramatic device Kim also used in The Isle). Over the course of the first half of the film, neither character talks (Sun-hwa screams, once) nor the only dialogue the audience hears comes from third sources (e.g., television, stereos, answering machines, and other characters, most notably Sun-hwa’s abusive husband). Sun-hwa and Tae-suk’s unconventional behavior eventually draws the attention of the police, which sends 3-Iron into a different direction, from wistful, understated, off-kilter romantic drama into crime/revenge drama.
Ki-duk Kim, however, isn’t satisfied with simply combining or tweaking conventions. 3-Iron takes yet another unexpected turn in the second half, which suggests that Kim has closely studied European directors (e.g., Antonioni’s existential dramas of the early 1960s) and magical realism/fantastic fiction (the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jorge Luis Borges come to mind), moving 3-Iron from the real, to the possibly imaginary, and finally, to the magically real, where metaphors are literalized, where the magical enters the real world, in part to ameliorate suffering and pain.
Credit too must go to the grounded performances given by the two leads, asked to act without an important, key part of their repertoire, their voices. Hee Jae and Seung-yeon Lee are compelled by Kim’s script to use the nuances of body language to express the entire range of conflicted human emotion. Without them, 3-Iron would have faltered on Kim’s decision to unmoor the script in the second half from a world grounded in a recognizable reality. If anything, Kim’s screenplay, written in just two weeks in a burst of creativity, suffers from one or two poorly developed elements, including Sun-hwa and Tae-suk's undermotivated decision to remain in an apartment where, for reasons better left unsaid, discovery is inevitable (as are the negative consequences). 3-Iron could have also introduced the magical realist elements earlier in the film, making them less jarring, and more welcome, to viewers as 3-Iron unfolded. Last, Kim makes little effort to explain the symbolism and meaning behind the golf club of the title (in the press notes, Kim points to the 3-irons loner status among golf clubs, due to its minimal use by golfers).Kim, of course, can be (and, most likely, will be) accused of willful pretension and obscurantism, allowing the audience to choose between several, mutually exclusive endings and explanations, but by the same token, Kim never loses sight of the moving relationship at the center of his film, one which most audiences will respond to, not with incredulity, but with belief and hope.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10545&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/20/05 12:40:05