291. 3-IRON (2004)

Bin-jip

“It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either a reality or a dream.”–closing quotation to 3-Iron

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Seung-yeon Lee, Hyun-kyoon Lee, Hyuk-ho Kwon

PLOT: A young man spends his days pinning advertising fliers to residences as a pretext to discover who in the neighborhood is on vacation; he then sneaks into their home and stays for a few days, always cleaning and fixing something around the house as a form of payment. One day he discovers that the residence he’s broken into isn’t empty; a battered woman catches him sleeping in her bed. The two silently connect and, after the intruder assaults the abusive husband with a barrage of golf balls, the wife accompanies him on his break-ins, until the law catches up to them.

Still from 3-Iron (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Major characters with no dialogue is something of a Ki-duk Kim trademark: his 2000 effort, The Isle, featured a mute heroine, and the male protagonist of 2001’s Bad Guy was almost entirely silent.
  • This was the first movie Kim made after forming his own production company. To save money, the writer/director did the motorcycle stunt work himself.
  • Included in “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An easy pick. It’s the image chosen for the poster: the husband and wife embracing, while the wife kisses her lover who stands behind her spouse, unseen. To the uninitiated, this shot suggests the movie will be about a love triangle; knowledge of the story imbues the scene with more ambiguity.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent lovers; jailhouse golf; invisibility training

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise of a man who lives in others’ homes is unusual. The fact that the two lovers never speak to each other, although capable of speech, adds a layer of mystery. In the mystical third act where the protagonist trains himself to be perfectly undetectable, however, 3-Iron opens up into legitimately weird realms.


Original trailer for 3-Iron

COMMENTS: 3-Iron is best understood as a ghost story. Not that any of the characters are literally dead, although you could fashion a narrative interpretation along those lines if you wanted to. Rather, the hero aspires to the status of a ghost: never speaking, living secretly in others’ homes, moving though society but trying to stay as unnoticed as possible. His name is given as “Tae-suk” in the credits—at least in the IMDB credits, translated I assume from the end credits—but this name is not spoken in the movie, even when the cops have figured out his identity. He is not disadvantaged (he’s a “college boy” and he owns an expensive motorcycle), but he lives as a homeless wanderer by choice. He touches other people’s lives only by secretly doing their laundry and fixing their broken appliances. To those around him, he is essentially invisible; the evidence of his existence is indirect. He is a living ghost.

Only specially blessed, or lucky, people can spot ghosts. Our hero remains unseen (or when seen, immediately forgotten) until he is spotted by the battered wife. He then chooses to become visible in the world, for her sake, when he commits to assaulting her husband. She, in turn, chooses to adopt his ways. As she starts to dematerialize and become more ghostlike, he becomes increasingly easier to spot. Two people cannot hide as easily as one. While they are tender towards each other, the two of them begin to have a negative impact on the world. Death now follows in their wake. For the woman, it is freeing—she escapes from the shackles of her marriage. But love throws the man’s formerly free-spirited life out of balance. He once floated lightly and unseen through society, but now is becoming increasingly in and of the world.

The lack of words exchanged between the two lovers is not a gimmick so much as a characteristic of their dreamy ghostliness. They lack even the breath necessary to be heard in the world. The dialogue-free setup challenges both the writer and the actors. But the discipline imposed by the non-verbal communication invites a more poetic form of discourse. In his review of 3-Iron Jason Ubermolch points out several of the methods Kim uses to convey information non-verbally; I find the most elegant of these to be the moments when the woman places herself in the path of the man’s golf ball as he’s about to tee off. Knowing that she has been abused, the gesture takes on a strange and subtle ambiguity and an emotional truth that no line of dialogue would have been able to convey. Is she expressing her submissiveness and masochism? Does she feel guilty about not stopping him from assaulting  her husband in a similar way? Placing herself in the path of his projectile, while giving him plenty of time to choose whether to swing or not, implies that she is willing to let him hurt her; that she stays with him after he declines to do so suggests that she was testing him, and he passed. But deciphering the meaning of such actions requires us to think about the characters and their motivations in a different and more speculative way than we would if they were expressing their desires out loud.

The hero’s fall from grace and materialization in the second act is perhaps related to the Buddhist paradox of love versus attachment. That’s not to say this is a religious movie; I think it’s spiritual but secular, reflecting South Korea today. But it arises out of a culture and tradition informed by a moral background radiation that’s different from the West. The hero begins as a sort of Buddhist saint, in that he has almost no attachment to material things. He owns only practical items: his motorcycle, clothes, lock picks. (Later he will take the titular golf club and a single ball as his lone recreational indulgence). When we first meet him, he has no attachment to any specific person, and yet, he’s not self-absorbed. By doing chores and fixing things around the houses he invades, he reveals a beneficent and selfless nature. He performs these thoughtful acts knowing they won’t be recognized or appreciated. His love for the woman, however, requires him to abandon this equanimity and enter into the world, where he will suffer because of his actions. In the third act 3-Iron diverges from the tenets of Buddhism to forge its own mystical spirituality. The man develops mystical stealth techniques that allow him to reconcile his desire to remain unseen with his attachment to the woman. He becomes, almost literally, a ghost haunting the house where she and her husband live. The spiritual twist is that he is a happy ghost, not a tormented one, bound to the earth and the woman by his own free choice.

Of course, this is not the only way to interpret 3-Iron, which unfolds like an insubstantial, intuitive parable. In his DVD commentary Ki-duk Kim suggests (while having the self-awareness to know “the audience might not agree with me”) that perhaps the husband is actually the protagonist of the film. Although I believe Kim when he says that he has sympathy for the husband, who appears repentant and reformed by the film’s end, it is hard to accept the theory that the main character would be the one we spend the least time with, or that his fantasy fulfillment would involve being cuckolded by a ghost. It would take a real symbolic leap to accept this conclusion, against most of the evidence Kim actually shows. To make it work, I think, we would have to imagine that the drifter never has any separate existence but is instead another aspect of the husband, one which he himself is at war with. It’s possible, but I think Kim may be stretching things a bit with these pro-hubby comments in order to stress his real point, which is that he believes (and hopes) that this film can be subject to many different interpretations. Personally, I see it as an anthropological case study of a modern ghost who finds a paradoxical liberation in his attachment to a particular woman. Sounds kind of weird when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s actually quite satisfying, in a weird, magical-realism sort of way that manages to disturb and confound as much as it appeases the romantic.”–Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…it’s a tribute to Kim’s masterful mysteriousness that you are never quite sure what your exact reaction should be, as well as the fact that it’s all highly intriguing rather than inscrutably annoying.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

“Part fugitive romance, part ghost story, part magic realist mime, 3-Iron matches its apparent simplicity to a beguiling inscrutability and ends with the most beautifully bizarre menage a trois to have been seen since Takashi Miike’s Gozu (2003).”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: 3-Iron (2004)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

3-Iron – AsianWiki’s 3-Iron page has an alternate trailer (in Korean) and a large image gallery

3-Iron: Silent Communication and the Sacredness of Space – Summary of lecturer Mark Yamada’s comments on the film

READER RECOMMENDATION: 3-IRON [BIN-JIP] (2004):‘s initial review recommending the film for this List

DVD INFO: Sony Pictures’ 2005 DVD (buy) was standard for the era. The only special feature of note is a good one: Ki-duk Kim‘s commentary. Unlike his characters, he’s very chatty.

The movie is also available for digital rental or purchase on demand.

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