3-Iron is the latest film from Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, who made our top ten last year with Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. That film was a specific meditation on Buddhism, whereas 3-Iron is just as poetic but not nearly as specific.
Is there a name for this form of drama: our protagonist is a good person who makes a mistake, breaking some law or taboo. Society wants to punish him, so he must run to stay ahead of the law. In the end, although the hero is cornered, a mystical force spirals him up and away from the real world into an alternate world of happiness. It’s almost like a tragedy, but with a “happy” ending permitted by some sort of madness.
If there’s a name for it, it applies not only to 3-Iron, but also to Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (based on a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and maybe even Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Breaking and Entering
R for some sexual content
3-Iron begins with our protagonist (Jae Hee), who never speaks and is never named (he is listed as Tae-suk in the press info), hanging flyers on the doorknobs of a well-to-do neighborhood. He uses these to determine which families are away on vacation, and then he picks their locks and enters their home.
He never steals anything. He washes up. He does some laundry. He waters the plants. He checks the fridge, and maybe spends the night. He photographs himself in front of whatever pictures the family might have on their walls. And when the inhabitants return, he leaves on his motorcycle to another neighborhood.
One house that appears deserted turns out not to be after all. As we watch him taking a bath, looking at photographs, or hitting golf balls in the back yard, so too does Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), who never lets on that she’s home. Eventually she reveals herself to him, her face bruised, and after an awkward moment and quite a bit of nonverbal communication, he leaves. A man, presumably her husband, has been calling, his voice coming through the answering machine, demanding that she pick up the phone.
But some sort of empathy has passed between them, and our golfer decides to return. He arrives in time to witness the husband attacking Sun-hwa. Our golfer calmly goes out to the back yard where the clubs, balls, and net are, and waits for the man to come out. When he does, our hero whacks him with golf balls, taking some sort of revenge on behalf of the woman.
The middle act of the movie has the woman following our golfer around. They never speak, but they share empathy and affection. Sometimes they manage to do good — like rescuing a dog or cleaning up a house whose inhabitant has died. And sometimes they do bad, like when one of his tethered golf balls gets free and hits a girl in the head (in this way, the movie is a little reminiscent of Spring, Summer, which is about regret and atonement).
The third act of the film has our protagonists picked up by the police, still not talking, and treated badly by the cops. The husband presses charges, going so far as to bribe the cops to allow him a little revenge.
During our golfer’s imprisonment he becomes better and better at becoming invisible to the guards, and the movie starts to take on unreal qualities. Sun-hwa is assumed to be a kidnap victim, and she is returned to her husband. She pines for her friend, which frustrates her husband. “You’re waiting for him to finish his sentence, aren’t you?” asks the husband, and one has to wonder if the double meaning of “sentence” existed in the original Korean dialogue.
The movie ends with a reunion, of sorts. The final shot is a beautiful image of the wife and the golfer, floating weightless above the real world. Is it really happening? Kim invites you to decide for yourself with an unnecessary title that says “It’s hard to tell whether world we live in is reality or a dream.”
3-Iron is beautiful — not in a gorgeous cinematographic way, although photographer Jang Seong-back leaves no room for complaint. The beauty is more in the river-like pace of the film (edited by director Kim): slow, steady, powerful, and moving with an inexorable sense of purpose. The rhythm of the movie is like a musical composition. Complexity is introduced as forms and images repeat: golf balls, photographs, technology, domesticity.
The characters in 3-Iron are fascinating. They don’t talk, so we get to know them only through their actions. Occasionally they even make us laugh, not from being hilarious, but from doing something that reveals their thought process. We laugh at why they do a thing, and not at the thing they do. Telling a story without dialogue is challenging, and Kim definitely up to the task.
Although the movie can be read literally almost all the way through, the ending requires a little interpretation from the audience. 3-Iron is a more art than entertainment, in that it requires an audience to complete it; it demands participation. Because of this, the timid moviegoer might feel like they didn’t “get” this movie. But like Spring, Summer, 3-Iron is an approachable movie that’s hard not to like. The characters, pacing, and style are all magnetic; they draw you in.
Consider 3-Iron a wonderful counterpoint to the sheer business- and entertainment-oriented films usually associated with summer.