3-Iron (2004)

3-Iron first published by EyeforFilm

Young, mostly harmless loner Tae-suk (Jae Hee) breaks into houses whose owners are away, makes himself at home for a night or so, does some cleaning or minor repairs, and then goes, leaving little trace of himself. On one of these uninvited visits, he fails at first to notice that unhappily married model Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yun) is still in the house, secretly watching his every move. When her abusive, golf-loving husband Min-kyu (Kwon Hyuk-ho) returns and is injured by the intruder, Sun-hwa leaves with Tae-suk.

Soon she has become his silent partner in house-borrowing and a gentle love grows between them – but when they are arrested, Sun-hwa is returned to the husband she despises and Tae-suk is tortured by the police, violently golf-balled by a vengeful Min-kyu and finally sent to prison. There, however, Tae-suk perfects the art of not being seen and discovers a way that he and his beloved Sun-hwa can live together under the same roof as Min-kyu.

In Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron (or Bin-Jip), as in his earlier The Isle, the main characters are virtually mute. Tae-suk is not heard to utter a single word (although one scene makes it clear that he is capable of speech) and Sun-hwa speaks for the first time (and even then only briefly) in the film’s final 10 minutes. These are characters whose silence reflects a more general disengagement from human society. Tae-suk naturally gravitates to the spaces vacated by other people and tries (if not always successfully) to leave no imprint on their lives, before finally, while in solitary confinement, discovering how to disappear entirely.

Sun-hwa is also attempting her own disappearing act, even before she has met Tae-suk. She moves round her empty house like a ghost, with the pictures of herself on the wall providing more presence than the genuine article. She has reduced her bodyweight to 47kg and does her best to ignore the outbursts and advances of her husband. Yet, for all their withdrawal from human contact, Sun-hwa and Tae-suk manage to touch each other.

Kim is at pains to emphasise their star-crossed fates through a series of parallel scenes, in which each is seen to sport a black eye, to comfort the other when weeping, and to perform the same domestic chores – in other people’s houses, of course. Their mutual vulnerability and self-effacing quietism is clear enough, but what remains far less clear is whether one of them might be a figment of the other’s imagination, or indeed whether Tae-suk is supposed to be alive, or dead, by the film’s close. These mysteries lend the romance an irrational trajectory that, like a sliced golf ball, may not have an obvious target, but nonetheless cannot be denied – or ignored.

The golf club of the film’s title, a rarely used one and, therefore, according to Kim, an apt symbol for abandoned homes and alienated persons, first appears as part of Min-kyu’s home set, and then becomes a weapon, a plaything and the cause of an accident – but in its most important “appearance” in the film, the 3-Iron is an invisible and absent item that Tae-suk merely pretends to swing into an equally non-existent golf ball. There may be nothing in Tae-suk’s hand, but the sound of club hitting ball is as plainly audible as the sound of the mimed tennis match with which Blow Up (1966) closed. Indeed, 3-Iron shares with Antonioni’s film a concern with cameras and models, and pulls off the similar conjuring trick of asking viewers whether they can trust, let alone understand, the crisp images that dance before their eyes.

Part fugitive romance, part ghost story, part magic realist mime, 3-Iron matches its apparent simplicity to a beguiling inscrutability and ends with the most beautifully bizarre image of menage à trois to have been seen since Takashi Miike’s Gozu (2003). It is rare that a haunting is so perfectly choreographed.

© Anton Bitel