Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores Kim Ki-duk’s ‘3-Iron.’
Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk is far from a household name in the United States, but those who do recognize his name might consider him a one-trick pony of misery, pain, and misogyny. I’d actually argue that last one as his films typically dole out the suffering to all characters, male or female, although the sting is often stronger seeing women on the receiving end. Films like The Isle, Bad Guy, and Samaritan Girl encouraged that reputation, and recent art-house hits Pieta and Moebius seemed to cement it.
But there’s far more to Kim Ki-duk than a predilection for showcasing battered and bruised bodies. 2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring was his first real international hit, and while the violence of human interaction remains the film focuses on our more contemplative and meditative endeavors to stunning effect.
Kim Ki-duk followed it up a year later (after a brief detour towards teen prostitution with Samaritan Girl) with what remains his best, most affecting, and most profound film, the impossibly beautiful 3-Iron.
The film’s plot, such as it is, is a not-so simple tale of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy returns to shadow girl’s husband for a lifetime of unaware threesomes and what amounts to a happy ending in the world of Kim’s films. The boy never speaks a word, the girl speaks less than ten, and together they build one of cinema’s great unsung (and unspoken?) love stories. Bear with me here.
Tae-suk (Lee Hyun-kyoon) rides the quiet streets of the city on his motorcycle stopping periodically to attach take-out menus to the doors of houses and apartments alike. He returns the next day and looks for the ones that have yet to be removed as it means the occupants are away for the time being. He picks the locks and enters, but rather than steal he’s there solely to borrow their space. Some food, some selfies, and a hot shower are all he takes, and in return he does their laundry, waters their plants, and fixes broken objects like clocks and radios.
He typically leaves before the owners return, but his latest intrusion sees him entering a house where one remains. Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) sits quietly in the shadows as an oblivious Tae-suk wanders her house. Bruises mark her face, and pain pours from her eyes, but she watches the young man with a growing curiosity. A former model, her photos adorn the walls and coffee table, but phone messages from her husband make it clear that her life now consists of being little more than a housewife and punching bag.
She watches him, he looks through her photos, and we watch them both.
The film is, in some ways, the idea of “show don’t tell” brought to lush life as the first dialogue spoken by one of the leads isn’t until nearly ninety minutes in – in a ninety minute film. Instead of words we see and understand through their actions and expressions the growing feelings between them and their shared appreciation for the world around them.
Sun-hwa finally makes herself known as she walks in on him masturbating to one of her photos, but while he beats a quick retreat a brief reflection outside – the phone calls, the look on her face – leads him to return. Her husband has returned as well, and after a violent altercation she and Tae-suk ride off on his motorcycle. His routine continues, and his new co-conspirator is a quick study as she silently joins in the cleaning pausing only to enjoy a meal he’s made for her.
One particularly sweet in moment in Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron sees her sheepishly slip into one of his selfies, and while it’s a light sequence on its face there’s weight to her action as evidenced by her reaction to a partially nude photo they find of her hanging on the wall of a random apartment. She removes it from its frame, jumbles it into a mosaic, and re-hangs it as something of a rejection of both the sexualization and objectification of beauty that clearly played a role in landing her in an abusive marriage. It’s a small beat, and like everything else is presented without dialogue, but it’s an effectively powerful one all the same.
The pair stay silent without explanation – we know through other reveals that both can speak – but the noise of the world and the people around them remains. With only two disparate exceptions, the theme running through the homes they visit – from upper class houses to ramshackle apartments – is a visible and vocal unhappiness. A squabbling family, a pair of arguing lovers, an aggressive husband – the pair’s silence is an understandable alternative.
The first exception they find to the caustic bluster of others is in a home that exudes serenity in the form of well cared-for plants, burbling fountains, and an air of calm. Their time there leads to one of the film’s more beautiful sequences later in the film after the silent lovers have been forcibly separated. Sun-hwa returns to the dwelling, enters without invite, and before an incredulous homeowner she moves quietly to the couch and lays down to sleep. He allows it and even stops his wife from waking the stranger in recognition of the visible peace on the sleeping woman’s face. It’s an unassuming act of kindness and an unforgettable scene of beauty.
The second – and the one that brings their spree to an end – involves an old man who they find dead on the floor from natural causes. The pair wash his corpse, wrap him with ceremonial respect, and bury his body beneath a blossoming tree. Their actions land Tae-suk in jail and Sun-hwa back with her husband, and it’s here where the film shifts slightly into something just as mesmerizing but more magical and ethereal.
Tae-suk pairs his silence with a developing ability to “disappear” from the view of others through practice and an increasingly painful toying with a prison guard. It’s not a literal invisibility – is it? – but through smart and subtle camera angles we see him moving further from sight. He becomes a phantom haunting the spaces just outside the frame, and as he revisits the homes from earlier their occupants feel a presence they’re unable to see.
He returns to Sun-hwa’s home, hiding in shadows and reflections, and while her husband is on the alert for the recently released Tae-suk he’s blindsided by his wife’s words. They’re the first words she speaks in 3-Iron, and while he thinks they’re for him they’re instead aimed at the man hiding over his shoulder.
“I love you,” she says, and their love story begins anew.
Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron is uninterested in explaining the events and interactions and instead lets them speak for themselves. They’re accompanied by striking photography, impeccable sound design, and effectively used musical choices (including Natacha Atlas’ moody and rhythmic “Gafsa” as heard in the trailer above). The film’s final image is of a scale, fixed earlier by Tae-suk and more recently fiddled with by Sun-hwa, and as two pairs of bare feet stand upon it the dial reads zero. Nothing, everything, the only thing.
“It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either a reality or a dream.”
Related Topics: Romance, The Essentials