While 2004 seemed an obvious indicator that the artistic output of Kim Ki-Duk was gathering momentum, it cannot be claimed that he is moving in a straight line. It is well-known that The Coast Guard was rushed into production (apparently because of the film-maker’s own restlessness and perhaps a desire to meet the 2002 Pusan International Film Festival’s opening night deadline) when weather conditions forced a rescheduling of the shoot of Spring summer, Autumn, Winter …and Spring. So anyone who thought that his subsequent films would echo the restraint of the buddhist fable was operating under a severe misapprehension.
While Samaritan Girl with its confronting take on prostitution clearly seems a reworking of themes established in Bad Guy (even the titles hint at the echoes), 3-Iron is less obvious a reworking of both, but by no means indicates that Kim Ki Duk has established a new direction. It would seem that all his films, perhaps like Hitchcock and Rohmer will swirl back in overlapping circles, with the newer films reinforming attentive audiences about the content of his quality filmography.
Kim has made a value of silence in his films and 3-Iron reinforces this. The lead character Tae-seok (played by Jae Hee) spends his time dropping takeaway food leaflets on front doors — not to sell food — but to establish whether the residents are home for future home invasions. And while most victims of burglaries voice the hurt of violation — that “someone” has been in their home — the protagonist of 3-Iron underlines this by not stealing anything, but rather merely using the available facilities and even doing any leftover washing and ironing! The topper is that Tae-seok then photographs himself in the person’s home as some kind of souvenir.
Such home invasion in some regard reflects the ambiguous sexuality of the men (and sometimes women) of Kim Ki Duk’s films. If it is an invasion then a comparison to rape is inevitable, but if it is respectful and even benevolent in execution then is it a form of seduction? I’m deliberately overlooking the malevolence (interesting word is it not?) of the home invasion photo which while it is not communicated seems to stem from ill-will possibly due to class issues as all of the houses depicted are quite well-to-do. How do the homeowners feel to discover that the washing has been done, cleaning has occurred and maybe somebody has eaten their food. Are their lives filled with a kind of unease, or is it just overlooked as a detail that maybe the husband/wife took the last sandwich or maybe their spouse did an unexpected bit of housework.
Kim’s exploration of home invasion takes another turn when Tae-seok enters the house of man which he presumes to be empty. Inside the house of an enthusiastic golfer is the man’s severely beaten wife (Seung-yeon Lee) whose face is a cluster of bruises. Most film-makers would have had the wife interrupt the invader promptly, but maintaining the silence, Kim allows the invader to become the unaware observed. It reminds of Bad Guy in the scene where the lead character in his island of loneliness watches the degradation of the woman he has forced into prostitution from behind the mask of a two-way mirror. We feel for both, and when a phone message from the belligerent and ostensibly remorseful husband alerts the invader that he is not alone, the film takes the unpredictable, but in retrospect obvious course, of having the wife join the serial invader on a series of subsequent invasions across Seoul.
When the police finally catch up with the pair who not only become partners in crime, but become lovers, the man is incarcerated, while the wife confounds everyone by maintaining a silence that protects the home invader.
While the invader is in jail the narrative makes its most audacious leap. More humorous in execution, it is here that 3-Iron again echoes Hitchcock in either Vertigo or Psycho, where stories boldly move beyond what has been established, but do so without damaging the essence of what has transpired before.
What does the film say for human relationships as a whole? You may come to love the person who has initially violates you? Or that deception is the only true path to happiness in a world that would otherwise deny us serenity? The power of Kim Ki-Duk’s images in the final moments of this film, complimented by the film’s eerie silence, means that individual responses can only be deeply personal, like audiences reflecting on Bergman’s personal mythology of the mid-sixties. The richness of the Kim’s images are also deeply disturbing and cast doubts on the security of our own relationships. Kim’s films suggest not. It is easy to suggest that it is the personal nature of Kim’s emotional life that is disturbed. However, be reminded that if Kim is generating a favourable response in film audiences (and three major prizes in one year is a good indication that this is true) then he is touching with deadly accuracy on something in the disturbed nature of our own relationships with lovers and spouses.
Perhaps the director’s emotional philosophy will continue to develop, or merely become clearer to those of us who are watching. One thing is certain though… like the prison guard baffled by the movements of 3-Iron’s sure-footed detainee, only a fool would try and guess where Kim Ki-Duk will land next.