Phil on Film Index

Friday, July 22, 2005

Review - 3-Iron (Bin-jip)

Fans of Kim Ki-duk’s earlier films might be wondering if the director has suddenly gone soft. His previous films, such as Bad Guy and The Isle, were violent, dark works, which invited accusations of misogyny and provoked outrage for their scenes of animal cruelty. Then, in 2003, Kim shifted gears to deliver his most accomplished work to date: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring. This was a beautifully measured, reflective and serious film, shot and crafted with exquisite care which achieved a transcendent state of grace. It was one of the year’s best films and seemed like a real departure for Kim, but his latest film is even more of a surprise.

begins in enigmatic fashion. Handsome young drifter Tae-suk (Jae Hee) spends his days wandering around town on his motorbike, and posting pizza delivery leaflets on every door. After a couple of days he returns and checks to see how many of the leaflets remain. Figuring that the owners must be away if they haven’t removed it, Tae-suk breaks into the home and spends a couple of days there. He never steals anything though, instead preferring to tidy the house, do the laundry and fix anything that might be broken.

Why does he do this? God knows, and we never come close to finding out either. Kim’s screenplay is deliberately short on details, adding an increased sense of mystery to the protagonist’s unusual behaviour, and giving the film the air of a ghost story. One night, as Tae-suk prowls around a house he’s found unattended, he fails to notice that somebody else is also there. This is Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yun), a young woman who is suffering at the hands of her abusive husband, and she watches the intruder with a quiet fascination as he goes about his business. Later, after seeing her husband beat Sun-hwa, Tae-suk administers some punishment with the golf club of the title and whisks Sun-hwa away on his bike. 3-Iron then follows these two as they fall in love and Sun-hwa takes to her new partner’s way of life like a duck to water.

Kim’s film is a slight, bizarre and utterly beguiling effort which blends various ideas and themes to dizzying effect. The two main characters never speak throughout the film (until Sun-hwa has a couple of brief lines right at the end) and their wordless voyage through Korean homes seems to expose the cold, lonely existence of everyone else. Kim plays with notions of fate and spirituality, but never seems too bothered about exploring these themes in any great depth. Instead the director simply crafts a gorgeous, intoxicating, often baffling romance which would probably collapse if subjected to any sort of close scrutiny.

It’s the kind of film which risks drifting into whimsy and inviting ridicule at every turn, but it just manages to remain anchored thanks to Kim’s sublime direction and the appealing performances of the two leads. Despite being deprived of dialogue, Jae Hee and Lee Seung-yun are both charismatic and have a tangible chemistry together. For his part, Kim creates some scenes which are just remarkable. The first meeting between the main couple is a tense and voyeuristic masterclass, while the occasional bursts of violence (yes, it’s that golf club again) are quick, blunt and handled with consummate skill.

3-Iron turns sharply into very different territory in its final third, which will prove difficult for some viewers to swallow. As the law and Sun-hwa’s vengeful husband start to close in, the film becomes a spiritual fable, which will require a leap of faith on behalf of the audience. But Kim has earned our trust by this point and repays those who do keep faith with a number of exquisite sequences. Tae-suk’s taunting of a prison guard is a captivating piece of filmmaking, as is his journey through the couple’s previous haunts, and 3-Iron builds to a beautiful, satisfying climax.

Despite the thin premise, 3-Iron is a treat. Endlessly imaginative, wonderfully made and featuring two cherishable performances; the film will offer great rewards to anyone giving it the chance. It marks another significant development for this enormously talented director and, as he continues in this more meditative stage of his career, we can only imagine what surprises he still has in store.