There’s a generalisation to be made about contemporary South East Asian film, and that is how it swings to alarming extremes unimagined in most of the cinematic world – from saccharine sweet and sentimental, to full-on, graphic, cover-your-eyes violence. Korea, and director Kim Ki-Duk in particular, embody this generalisation more than anybody or anywhere else – shocking in The Isle, quiet and contemplative in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.
Kim Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron gets its name from the golf club that the caddy hardly ever reaches for. The 3-iron gets a few outings in this movie, though there are no great expanses of green to be seen. Gritting your teeth already? Well, 3-Iron is also probably the least dialogue-heavy picture of the year, and has moments of real poetic beauty. But that said it is a mightily mixed bag.
A young man, Tae-Suk (Jae Hee) posts fliers on keyholes. He passes through the same neighbourhoods later, and where the fliers are intact, correctly assumes there is no-one home. He breaks in, but once there he will do the washing, fix the hi-fi, and have something to eat, take a shower and sleep. Then he moves on. A thief he isn’t.
When he forces his way into a rich home, and finds evidence of a beautiful woman (framed photographs and magazine shoots), and an abusive husband (aggressive answerphone messages), he stays. The husband is away, but the wife, Sun-Hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) silently follows Tae-Suk around. When she makes her presence known to him, her face showing evidence of a beating, it’s a little awkward. He’s masturbating to her photographs.
They continue silently and apart. He fixes the bathroom scales and lays out her clothes for her while she showers. The husband comes home in a foul temper and confronts Tae-Suk in the garden golf practice range, but the young man strikes a couple of well-aimed golf balls and leaves with Sun-Hwa, who joins his transitory existence.
Never uttering a word to one another, they gradually fall in love. The two lead actors utterly convince, their moments together played tenderly, but disbelief must be suspended (this being the movies and all), as they get through a variety of scrapes without making so much as a sound. It isn’t until they choose a house where a dead body lies inside that things start to unravel. A series of events sees Tae-Suk imprisoned (his digital photos posed incriminatingly in front of assorted family mantelpiece portraits don’t help his case), but there he strikes an imaginary golf ball and learns to make himself virtually invisible.
The prison guard threatens to kill Tae-Suk, and meanwhile the cuckolded husband returns to the nest. His wife is brought back to him – though she now stands up to him and refuses his attempts to force himself upon her. Her husband bribes a policeman and gains revenge, 3-iron in hand, on the prisoner Tae-Suk. But Sun-Hwa waits…
And that really is only half the story. That rarest of sub-genres, the magic-realist tale of domestic abuse, it’s almost balletic in the scenes played out between the two leads. The change – in Tae-Suk’s story – from dramatic caper to Buster Keaton halfway through, requires a little adjustment. And if 3-Iron does lose you before its curious and wonderful ending, it drags you right back in again with a smile on your face.