With “The Bow”, now released on UK DVD by Tartan, 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 these 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, lyrically encouraging the viewer to dig deeper.
The film takes place on a boat, floating on an unnamed ocean, on which live an old man (Jeon Sung-hwan) and a young girl (played by Han Yeo-reum, also in the director’s excellent “Samara”). 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, a date which he eagerly awaits, counting down the days on a calendar. The old man’s 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. The girl starts to assert herself, and as the wedding day draws near, tensions mount and a tragic confrontation appears inevitable.
The story itself deals with many of the themes which often run through Kim’s films, primarily in that it examines 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 being kept against her will, Kim never offers any easy answers or condemnations. Their 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 to be 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 obviously 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 her best interests. This subtle 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 that the look of the film compliments perfectly its spiritual aspect, being at times almost illusive and unworldly, yet tied to the physical presence of the boat itself.
The titular bow is well used, with Kim drawing a link between the tightening of its drawstring and the heightening of the tense emotions on the boat. Thematically, it neatly illustrates the film’s depiction of the duality of human nature, being both a deadly weapon and provider of soul-soothing music. Through this, it can be seen to represent the different aspects of the old man’s love, at once fierce and tender, as well as a signifier of his own sexual potency, or lack thereof. As expected, Kim fills the proceedings as a whole 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, which feels intimate, rather than claustrophobic.
There are a number of ambiguous cultural and religious references, using Buddhist motifs, as well as 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. With the kind of enigmatic climax that Kim often employs, it takes on the impression of an allegory or fable, and 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. However, for fans of the director and those willing to open their minds, a rewarding experience awaits.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Yeo-reum Han … The young girl
Si-jeok Seo … The student
Gook-hwan Jeon … The student’s father