3-Iron (2004) Movie Review

“3-Iron” is the latest offering from Ki-duk Kim, the acclaimed Korean director who has been responsible for a number of nihilistic masterpieces, including “Samaria” and “Bad Guy”. “3-Iron” has been gathering strong reviews and a number of accolades, including several prizes and a special director’s award at the 2004 Venice Film Festival. However, this critical success is unlikely to translate into widespread popularity, as “3-Iron” is very much in line with the director’s previous films, being a complex exploration of human relationships and communication, as well as the violence so often inherent in these aspects of our existence.

This is not to suggest that the film is obtuse or inaccessible to the average viewer as, if anything, “3-Iron” sees Kim softening his bleak view of humanity somewhat, and removing some of the incredible viciousness which made many of his earlier works rather unpalatable for those with weaker stomachs. Although “3-Iron” is still very much concerned with emotional isolation and in this case a desire to fade from the world, the director injects a sense of surrealist whimsy. Also, despite themes of domestic violence and societal control, Kim works in a number of surprisingly gentle and beautiful moments. The end result is an almost ethereal, yet truly captivating film which is fascinating and moving, and which stands amongst Kim’s finest, yet again confirming that he is one of the most talented and insightful directors working in the profession today.

The film begins as we follow Tae-suk (Hee Jae), a strange, silent young man who breaks into people’s houses when they are away on holiday, and takes up residence. Far from being a thief or intent on any kind of damage, Tae-suk actually cleans the houses, fixes broken appliances, and tries to soak up the details of the inhabitants’ lives. His ghostly existence is changed when he breaks into the house of Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee, recently in “This Charming Girl”), a battered wife who chooses to hide and watch Tae-suk as he goes about his odd rituals. When her selfish brute of a husband returns and beats her again, only to be thrashed by Tae-suk using strategically hit golf balls, Sun-hwa leaves with the strange young man and enters his world of living between the lines of society. Although at first things proceed in the manner of an idyllic dream, tragedy strikes, leaving the two facing harsh choices which will dictate their place in the world.

One of the most striking aspects of “3-Iron” is the way Kim generates tension between the calm, ambient existence of the two protagonists, and the violent noise of the outside world. This tension is laid bare by the fact that neither Tae-suk nor Sun-hwa utters a word until the final scenes of the film. Although this may well sound like pretentious excess, Kim uses the device skillfully, seamlessly interweaving it with the fabric of the film, and it is quite likely that viewers will not even realize the lack of dialogue until the two eventually speak. The whole film is filled with small gestures, and a gentle form of communication which is innovative and at times simply delightful. Both Jae and Lee give outstanding performances, and the range of emotions they convey with mere looks and actions is quite incredible.

This silence, combined with the gentle soundtrack and Kim’s dreamy, gorgeous visuals, gives the parts of the film which focus on the strange couple a haunting and beautiful air which is joyful in its innocence, yet sad because the viewers are all too aware that their self-imposed isolation will not endure. Kim constantly reminds viewers of this by shooting the outside world in harsh colors and shadowy darkness, portraying a world filled with selfish, vicious characters, such as Sun-hwa’s husband and a number of brutal policemen. Although not as unpleasant as his earlier films (such as “The Isle”), Kim still includes a number of uncomfortable scenes, as well as some of the random deaths which he often uses to illustrate the chaotic nature of the world.

Kim uses this tension between the two different types of life to illustrate the traps that people exist in, whether of their own making or not, a theme which he has explored in several other films. In “3-Iron”, Kim offers some form of hope, though typically, this is left very much up to the viewer to interpret and to draw meaning from, as the film’s final act takes a decidedly surrealist turn, with events that may or may not be real, and a climax which is incredibly moving, whilst leaving much to the imagination.

This, for many viewers, will be the main problem with the director’s films, as his decision not to impose any kind of real moral judgment on his characters, or to offer any concrete answers to the questions raised, can be frustrating. However, for those who enjoy films which stimulate and probe, Ki-duk Kim’s works can almost be seen as philosophical tracts which beg for deeper meditation in a way which is hugely rewarding in an age where most films simply spoon feed viewers their plots and secrets.

Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Hee Jae …. Tae-suk
Seung-yeon Lee …. Sun-hwa

Buy 3-Iron on DVD