Original release: October 15th, 2004
Running time: 88 minutes
Country of origin: South Korea
Original language: Korean (with English subtitles)
Writer and director: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Jae Hee, Lee Seung-yeon, Kwon Hyuk-ho
One afternoon after struggling to keep my eyes open for a particularly onerous lecture on Ancient Greek comedy, I trudged down the rain swept streets of Manchester to my local picture theatre, the Cornerhouse. That afternoon I saw Park Chan-wook’s astounding Oldboy (2003) and was introduced to the cinema of South Korea; I couldn’t get enough. For a long time Park’s film remained my favourite Korean movie but in turn I discovered Bon Joon-ho and his masterful Memories Of Murder (2003) and then Kim Ki-duk. “Show, don’t tell” is the famous filmmaker maxim and when I watched Kim’s work I really got it.
Although his strange mix of graphic violence, dubious sexual politics and magical realism are not for everyone, he went through a phase in the mid-noughties that really appealed to me; over the course of two years he produced Samaritan Girl (2004), Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter… and Spring (2003), The Bow (2005) and his greatest masterpiece, 3-Iron.
Showing disdain for such things as a dialogue from his main characters and leaving their back-stories almost nonexistent, Kim crafted a touching and surreal romance without our star-crossed lovers speaking a single word to one another. When words are finally spoken, they’re three rather important ones and end the story beautifully. In the same way we’re dumped on the boat at the centre of The Bow with little explanation, 3-Iron’s opening act neglects to inform us why it is that Tae-suk (Jae Hee) drives the streets of a Korean city, breaking into the homes of holidaying families and living their lives for a few days before they return.
Tae-suk’s no burglar; he never steals anything, and in fact he hand washes the dirty laundry and fixes broken appliances before he leaves. The only thing he takes are photographs of himself around the house, as mementos presumably. As he snaps himself beside a framed picture of the smiling family who live there, we might perhaps conclude that Tae-suk has lost his own and lives these brief interludes in the hope of feeling part of something, a connection no matter how remote.
His method for targeting houses is to place fliers over the keyholes of every door on a street. If, when he returns the next day, the flier isn’t gone, he breaks in. This doesn’t account for the beautiful Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee) who lives locked up in her house, terrified and abused by her husband, and when the young man enters her abode and she stumbles upon him, the two form a strange mute connection. She doesn’t scream or run for help as she’s intrigued by him, and he’s immediately aware she’s broken.
After a brutal encounter with Sun-hwa’s husband (Hyuk-ho Kwon) in which the titular 3-Iron is used, the two of them run off together and slowly grow closer as they spend their days and nights cruising the streets and living in other people’s homes. Interestingly, our initial thoughts are along the lines of, “but what if someone returns to find him there?” or “how can he keep getting away with this?”, rather than the perhaps more pertinent wonder at why they find such solace in this way of life.
We start getting answers when a number of incidents suggest this is a finite pastime. In the opening scene we notice our protagonist’s lack of awareness as he fixes a pellet gun in a family home only for a child to shoot his mother with it at point blank range upon their return. What happens to her? We and Tae-suk don’t know – or care – and it takes a horrific accident for our hero to understand that actions have consequences.
Hero is an apposite word here. We begin to wonder whether a maturation and acceptance of responsibility is the ultimate lesson to be learned from 3-Iron, but these incidents do little to imbue the young man with a sense of responsibility as we might expect in a typical modern screenplay. We can actually look back to something altogether more traditional in understanding Tae-suk’s metaphysical voyage; Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Whilst going into it now would only serve to ruin the film’s power, it can (with the exception of the mentor) be aligned almost perfectly with a traditional heroic arc especially in terms of the rebirth and power gained as Tae-suk hypnotically creeps around a prison cell.
Shot with Kim’s typical deliberate grace, 3-Iron is a sublime modern love story and creates a subtle mythology that makes its finale wonderfully tender and rewarding. To have a film in which a couple fall undeniably in love without speaking, and which finishes in such a touching and visually glorious way, is why it fights for a coveted spot among my favourite films.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.