Reader review by Jason Ubermolch. Some background on this review: in the suggestion thread, Jason recommended three movies: Brother Sun, Sister Moon; this one; and Zachariah. I noted that the first two movies were critically acclaimed but sounded only mildly weird, so I picked Zachariah to cover as the weirdest of the trio. Thinking I was unduly dismissing 3-Iron‘s weirdness, Jason offered to make the case for it as a weird movie and do the write up himself. (This procedure is highly recommended, by the way; we would love to see the reader recommendation category grow)!
DIRECTED BY: Ki-duk Kim
FEATURING: Seung-yeon Lee, Hyun-kyoon Lee (Jae Hee), Hyuk-ho Kwon
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: 3-Iron is a love story in which the lovers communicate their joy, grief, fear, trepidation, trust, and insecurities – believably – without ever exchanging dialogue. Plus, the subtle uncanniness of a man who can move silently, without being seen, adds a poignant surreality to the last quarter of the movie.
PLOT & COMMENTS: The protagonist of 3-Iron is a young Korean man who breaks into people’s houses while they’re on vacation and lives in their homes. He eats their food, listens to their stereos, and sleeps in their beds, but he also fixes their broken appliances, cleans their laundry, and, more or less, earns his keep. One night he occupies a house in which a beaten wife, Sun-hwa, is hiding with a bruised and bloodied face; she trails him silently, unseen, as he goes about his chores. When her husband returns from his business trip and begins to beat her, the young man pelts the husband with golf balls, and then rides off with Sun-hwa on his motorcycle.
In the next half of the movie, the squatter and Sun-hwa continue to live out their innocent breaking-and-entering lifestyle, turning into an efficient and silent house cleaning team. In a photographer’s apartment, Sun-hwa learns the trade. In a boxer’s house, the nameless man is beaten by the owner and it becomes Sun-hwa’s turn to feed and nurse a bruised victim. In another house, the hero and Sun-hwa shyly woo each other and kiss. And in yet another, they discover an old man who has died; they prepare his body for a funeral and bury him, only to be accosted by the deceased’s long-absent family and arrested.
After her release, Sun-hwa returns to her house, but remains silent and cold to her still-abusive husband. The squatter goes to jail, where he teaches himself to move silently, shadow his guards, and be practically invisible, even to the most attentive observer. He is eventually set free, and he returns to Sun-hwa and lives in the shadow of her husband. Elated, she becomes herself again, and her husband believes she has once again fallen in love with him; but the one word of dialogue spoken by our two heroes—Sun-hwa’s simple but honest “I love you”—is meant for the man behind her husband.
It is hard to capture in text the weirdness of a movie in which there is sound, but almost no dialogue. The depth of emotion the two main characters communicate without using their voices is amazing. The young man, for instance, whiles away his time by using the three iron (the same one he used to beat the husband) to whack at a golf ball tied to a tree with wire; Sun-hwa interrupts him by standing, vulnerable and crestfallen, in front of him, expressing in a way that words simply cannot how implicitly she both trusts and fears him. The man, concerned, refuses to hit the ball with her in front of it, acknowledging but refusing her helpless supplication. Later, as they sit in the living room of one of the houses, drinking tea, Sun-hwa delicately uses her foot to caress the young man’s foot, shyly, with trepidation, but also clearly with love and gratitude. He looks at her with a mix of surprise and satisfaction and it is at that moment that we know, long before Sun-hwa says it, that they are in love.
Perhaps it is more useful to discuss the few times when dialogue does happen. The first words we hear are on an answering machine. But this is not “dialogue.” Flatly mixed into the soundtrack, the words announcing the absence of a family from their home sound more like the other noises of the movie—traffic, glasses clinking, phones ringing—just objects, like any other. Real dialogue—from the husband directed at Sun-hwa, between the policemen, from the boxer—is almost always the harbinger of violence or anger. Most of the attempts at communication fail to verbalize anything deeper than lies, threats, or conspiracy to violence. The most striking example comes from a policeman accusing the man of having kidnapped and raped Sun-hwa. He yells, “What have you done to her to keep her so silent!,” not realizing that not only does she choose to be silent, but that it is the husband, not the lover, who has spurred her into her speechlessness. That a movie can highlight the futility of words to communicate so poignantly is remarkable and ironic, and that it can do so in such a calm, quiet, beautiful manner as this film does is, frankly, shocking.
Obviously, visuals must play a great part in setting the mood here, and the compositions in this movie are flawless. When the young man interrupts the husband beating his wife, there is a brief shot of the husband looking out the window at the man in the garden, with the reflection of his wife foreshadowing that the young man will come between them. At the photographer’s house, there is a poster of Sun-hwa (who used to be a model) which she cuts into squares and reassembles haphazardly, as an expression of the chaos of emotions and uncertainty inside her. The scenes in which the young man slinks around in the shadows of his hosts are largely shown from his point of view, and are at once ominous and sweet, certain in their footing, but uncertain in their intent. This culminates in the end at breakfast: the husband thinks he has won his wife back, the lover is able to live gracefully and quietly with the woman he loves, and Sun-hwa has regained her spirit and happiness. Nothing more than that needs be said.
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.”–Michale O’Sullivan, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)