After the historic Oscar win of Parasite last year, I became more interested in South Korean films. And that leads me to explore several critically acclaimed South Korean movies with time. I tasted the films made by renowned filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, and Park Chan-wook earlier. But I haven’t come across the films of the Korean filmmaker, who is considered as one of the pioneers of Korean films on the global stage. The director is none other than Kim Ki-duk. Recently I watched his 2004 masterpiece 3-Iron (2004). With that viewing, I get why his films are regarded with higher remarks from the critics and audiences alike.
Revolves around the story of a drifter, Tae-suk, who roams around the city taping takeout menus over the keyhole of the front doors. When the takeout menus are not taken out by the house owners, he breaks into the houses. Usually empty (as the house owners are away), he lives in those houses for a day or twice. Breaking into the houses is perhaps illegal but he doesn’t have any bad intentions. He doesn’t steal anything from there or doesn’t do any harm. Rather he does the laundry for their unwashed clothes and fixes anything that is broken out of a sign of gratitude.
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One day when he breaks into a house, he finds out a young woman, Sun-hwa. She is married to a wealthier businessman and has all the facilities to have a prosperous life. Still, she is not happy. Later the story reveals that she is a victim of constant domestic abuse from her husband. When Tae-suk enters her life, she finds new hope. In front of him, perhaps the first time she screams out of her trauma.
This inciting incident leads Tae-suk to rescue Sun-hwa from her traumatic life and he takes her on a nomadic odyssey to eventually find the meaning of love amidst the hatred. Apparently, this looks like this is the love story portrayed thousands of times in the movies. But the beautiful and haunting qualities, it restricts itself to fall into the other thousand love stories. It is emotional, gritty, and powerful in every aspect. With the themes like loneliness, domestic violence, jealousy and ultimately finding love, this film is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of these sentiments and desires of modern society.
From the first frame of the movie, Kim takes us to an unsettling yet beautiful ride with Tae-suk. We break into the houses as he does. We voyeurs around others as he does. But it is not only an intrusion to the lives of others but also an intrusion into the hearts and minds of the audiences. In an interview as Kim said, “We are all empty houses waiting for someone to open the lock and set us free”, 3-Iron becomes a two-way communication between us and the characters.
This can be seen in the context of the portrayal of the two leads. Kim takes Tae-suk to the broken home Sun-hwa. Tae-suk brings warmth and tenderness into her life at her most vulnerable. Also, Sun-hwa accompanies Tae-suk in his nomadic purposeless odyssey only to complement him to overcome his loneliness and in return give purpose to him of taking the responsibility of her. And the two odds connect with each other. Though they did not talk for most of the film’s length we can feel their everlasting bonding.
The lead pair of Lee Seung-yeon and Jae Hee is outstanding with their acting. With no or minimal dialogues in the entire film, their subtle minimalist expression and actions internalize the feelings with no sign of superficiality. Though it can feel kind of monotonous in the middle portion if you endure that it will be a treat to watch. The last act of the film is equally confusing and satisfying. It is where the film takes an unimaginable turn with the greater evolution of the character arcs alongside Kim’s surrealistic treatment of the narrative. Though it gets a happy ending, the question is there – is it real or a dream? Perhaps as the film says, it is hard to comprehend the world we live in is either a dream or a reality.