3-IRON (‘Bin-jip’, Korea, 2004, colour), Directed by Ki-duk Kim and starring Seung-yeon Lee, Hee Jae, Hyuk-ho Kwon, Jin-mo Ju and Jeong-ho Choi. Anamorphic widescreen transfer, 90 min. In Korean with optional Korean and English sutbtitles. Extras include unsubtitled interviews and featurettes.
by Plalai Faifa
If you winced at the fishhooks and filleted but still living fish in Ki-duk Kim’s international breakthrough film The Isle, and then were surprised by the contrasting serenity of his next global hit, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, be ready for another change of direction in this enigmatic little romance. It’s a very different kind of movie, but what it does have in common with those two tantalising earlier films is a feeling that something miraculous is going on, although it is hard to say exactly what it is.
Tae-suk (Hee Jae), the young man at its centre, is as mysterious a character as the old monk and the altruistic young prostitute in the previous two movies. He rides around the city on an expensive-looking motorcycle attaching leaflets from a take-away restaurant to people’s doors, then returns later to target homes where the flyers have been left undisturbed. He breaks into these places and makes himself at home, taking baths, cooking meals, wearing clothes taken from closets, and finally settling down in bed for the night. He departs before the owners return, but pays for his stay by washing their clothes and repairing any broken appliances that he notices. He never steals or abuses anything and always leaves things better than he found them.
While enjoying the amenities of one luxurious home, he fails to notice Sun-hwa, a pretty young woman with a bruised and battered face who is sitting in a concealed corner. She follows him around silently, observing him as he goes through his usual routines of settling in and cleaning up. Eventually, at a key moment, he spots her and a wordless bond instantly forms between them. Soon she has left her home and her abusive husband to join him on his rounds.
Kim shows us the owners of many of the homes that Tae-suk and Sun-hwa trespass, and most of them are unhappy: a couple at odds after a failed vacation, a fierce-tempered boxer who is cheating on his wife, a couple caring for an elderly parent who is dying from stomach cancer. Those who become aware of the intrusions react violently, with the exception of one prosperous young Chinese couple who seem to understand that what they are doing is somehow good.
It is tempting to see Tae-suk as a divine figure of some kind. Actor Hee Jae has a face that seems made to express outraged purity and innocence. But there are times when he deliberately harms people and seeks violent revenge. The 3-iron of the title is always with him, and he uses it and the golf balls he fires off with it as a weapon.
Eventually, when the couple are caught and Tae-suk is jailed, director Kim adds to the air of mystery by stepping up the use of symmetries and correspondences that have been an aspect of Tae-suk’s relationship with Sun-hwa from the beginning. Early on he watches from behind a glass door as Sun-hwa’s husband slaps her around. Later Sun-hwa watches equally helplessly as Tae-suk gets similar treatment from a police inspector. Situations involving people shadowing and observing others also take on a special significance.
Who is Tae-suk and where did he come from? At one point we learn that he has a college degree, but otherwise nothing is revealed about where he came from or is going. Sun-hwa, too, is a wraith-like figure as she drifts through this dreamlike movie in her wordless but warm and loving relationship with Tae-suk. When she finally does speak her first words to him, at the very end of the film, they are encapsulated in a lie told to someone else.
I don’t know what Ki-duk Kim is getting at here. Evidently he wrote, filmed, and edited 3-Iron in less than two months, but it certainly feels as if something meaningful is lurking behind its enigmas. It’s also the lightest, funniest, and most entertaining of any of the films this eccentric director has made so far, and the two leads are attractive and ingratiating (the one-note performances by the couple’s various tormentors are pretty much built into the script). I bought my copy online from dvdasian.com.