"The Bow", acclaimed South Korean director Kim Ki-duk continues to
explore human nature and transcendence, moving further away from the
bitterness and sadism which characterised his earlier work. Although
at first the film appears to have much in common with "The
Isle", sharing the same, overtly symbolic setting that verges on
the abstract, it is in fact a direct continuation of the themes
delved into by "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring" and "3-Iron".
As with those films, "The Bow" is a poetic, at times surreal piece
which makes use of a basic central gambit, layering it with
ambiguous meaning and an enriching emotional resonance which reaches
far beyond its own simple premise. Few directors are as skilled as
Kim at this, and the film is well balanced, working on both levels
and providing on the surface a tense study of love and trust, whilst
gently and lyrically encouraging the viewer to dig deeper.
The film takes place on a boat floating on an
unnamed ocean, on which lives an old man (Jeon Sung-hwan) and a
young girl (Han Yeo-reum, also in the director's excellent "Samaria").
The old man plans to marry the girl, who he supposedly found some
ten years earlier, and who has never left the boat, as soon as she
turns seventeen. It is a date the old man eagerly awaits, even
counting down the days on a calendar. The old man's other prize
possession is a bow, with which he protects the girl, as well as
using it as a musical instrument.
The two make money by hosting fishermen, and by
telling their fortunes using the strange method of the old man
shooting arrows at the girl as she swings in front of what appears
to be a Buddhist painting on the side of the boat. Their idyllic
existence is troubled by the appearance of a young man, who falls in
love with the girl and accuses the old man of keeping her prisoner.
Slowly, the girl starts to assert herself, and as the wedding day
draws near, tensions mount and confrontation appears inevitable.
The story itself deals with many of the themes
which often run through Kim Ki-duk's films, primarily in its
examination of love through the concepts of ownership and trust. The
relationship between the old man and the girl is complex, and even
as the film progresses, and it appears that the girl is indeed kept
against her will, Kim never offers any easy answers or
condemnations. The old man and the girl's affection for each other
and co-dependence is made all the more powerful by the fact that
neither speaks, and the way in which Kim allows subtle actions and
glances to illustrate their emotions and motivations is extremely
skilful, and never feels forced.
Since the fishermen who come to the boat are
generally perverts who are constantly trying to grab the girl, her
relationship with the old man has a strangely innocent aspect, and
though uncomfortable, never feels overtly aggressive or
exploitative. In fact, the old man's role of protector, driving away
the letches with his bow, and the tender love he clearly feels for
the girl, generate considerable sympathy, and even when the young
man appears to challenge him, it is far from clear who is truly
acting in the girl's best interests. This moral ambiguity is
fascinating, and presents the viewer with a set of intriguing
characters rather than a set of obvious heroes and villains.
Visually, the film is minimalist, yet stunning. The maritime setting
is perfectly utilised, and the constant, yet gentle lapping of the
waves provides an almost hypnotic atmosphere. Perhaps most pleasing
is the way in which the look of the film perfectly compliments its
spiritual aspect, being at times almost illusive and unworldly, yet
tied to the physical presence of the boat itself. With the titular
bow, Kim is drawing a link between the tightening of its drawstring
and the heightening of the tense emotions on the boat. Thematically,
this neatly illustrates the film's depiction of the duality of human
nature, being both a deadly weapon and provider of soul-soothing
music, as well as representing the different aspects of the old
man's love for the girl -- at once fierce and tender, as well as a
signifier of his own sexual potency, or lack thereof.
expected, Kim fills "The Bow" with symbolism, through the intrusive
modern gadgets given to the girl by the young man, to the fact that
no land is ever seen, and the boat itself feels intimate rather than
claustrophobic. There are a number of ambiguous cultural and
religious references as well, including Buddhist motifs and a
variation on the Korean national flag. Thankfully, these are used in
a delicate, if perhaps cynical and not entirely respectful manner,
rather than the tacky mysticism which is commonly exploited for
cheap atmospherics or tacky philosophical musings. The film as a
whole has an almost ethereal, elemental feel, and truly engages the
viewer, begging further analysis.
The finale of "The Bow" takes on the impression
of an allegory or fable, one which may be deciphered by viewers as
they see fit without the hindrance of explicit answers or blatant
signposting. As such, "The Bow" is unlikely to appeal to those who
expect films to offer immediate gratification, since it is devoid of
cheap thrills or pseudo witty dialogue. However, for fans of the
director and those willing to open their minds, a rewarding
experience awaits, and one that is far removed from the trash which
sadly fills modern cinema.