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A Bluffer's Guide to Ki-duk Kim

'3-Iron': A Housebreaker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Richard von Busack

Compose a bluffer's guide to the films of Ki-duk Kim, and you need to guess at meaning in the work of a director who has very few films available in the West. Only three of Kim's dozen films had a multicity release in the USA. Of that three, only one managed to stay around for more than a couple of weeks. All three may not be equally compelling, but all three are brilliant.

3-Iron (Bin-Jip) is perhaps the least mysterious of Kim's films released here, and it's still baffling. There's a young squatter named Tae-Suk (Hee Jae); he rides his motorcycle around the city, picking the locks of vacant apartments and houses. Once inside, he makes himself at home.

In one house, he discovers a mute, beaten-up girl named Sun-Hwa (Seung-yeon Lee)--the wife of a bigwig who took off on a business trip after he gave her a beating. The two spend the night together, but the brute comes home and discovers them. The two lovers head off on a spree of housebreaking. As if they were film directors, they never steal anything but images: they photograph themselves in the houses as souvenirs. When the cops catch up with them Sun-Hwa refuses to talk. (No surprise there. She has exactly two vocalizations in the entire film: a scream and the words "I love you.") And Tae-Suk, kept in solitary confinement, refines the art of invisibility.

Like Kim's The Isle and his art-house success Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, 3-Iron demonstrates a remarkable visual imagination, a smooth mixing of the fantastic and the realistic, and a desert-dry sense of humor. Like much of the new South Korean cinema, Kim's work can be horribly sensational. There were understandable walkouts after the cruelty to a fish in The Isle. It's hard to watch a boy's thoughtless cruelty to a reptile in everyone's favorite Kim movie, Spring, Summer, but the act of violence is instructive: it has drastic karmic consequences. Significantly, Tartan Films--the distribution company of the highly intelligent Korean shocker Oldboy, distributes a few Kim titles on home video. And despite its compassionate notes, 3-Iron gets its title from a golf club that's used as an assault weapon.

The fudger writing about Kim gets very little help from the IMDb. The pseudonymous critic of Kim's 2002 film Haw Anseon, known as Coast Guard, expresses outrage that the movie shows the mistreatment of Coast Guard soldiers in South Korea. Yet Kim had been an officer in the South Korean military, and might know what he was talking about.

It seems as if the IMDb's description of 3-Iron has details leaked into the review by the SF Weekly. This review describes the housebreaker-hero Tae-Suk fixing things that are broken "as a sign of compassion." What I saw was something more like the work of a poltergeist. In one instance, Tae-Suk loads an unloaded gun, which has drastic consequences. Sometimes he prankishly tampers with the appliances, setting back a bathroom scale, or turning back a clock. Modern life is too much ruled by the clock and the scale. Lord knows I hate them both, but sometimes it's critically important to have these things working correctly. Furthermore, the laundry Tae-Suk and his mute girlfriend do, supposedly as a sign of compassion, may well be their own washing.

Tae-Suk suffers for his compulsion to enter people's houses. The cops and the jailers beat him up, and so do more than one of his victims. Yet without a clear explanation for his compulsion, you have to project what 3-Iron is about. Kim seems a conservative filmmaker at heart. In his lens, the interiors of traditional Korean homes are far more welcoming than the grossly Westernized estate from which Sun-Hwa escapes. In some respects, perhaps Tae-Suk represents the spirit of his nation, recoiling from the gross side of Western life, but not fully at home in its traditional side either. As such, this seems a particularly compelling film for a young man, under the thumb of the rich and the police. I think I would have drunk this movie dry when I was 17.

So what can you do, but recommend 3-Iron and hope for some new clues from those who watch. There's an obvious problem when writing about the movies of any impressionistic director--Kim, David Lynch, Lucretia Martel or such pioneers of subjective cinema as Jean Vigo or that unsung hero Dmitri (Menilmontant) Kirsanov. What you're seeing is always a matter of opinion, not a matter of fact. The mystery begins outside the film's lines. 3-Iron ends with a slightly lame epitaph: "It's hard to tell if the world we're in is reality or a dream." But the act of watching is serious collaboration with the director's imagination.

3-Iron (R; 95 min.), directed and written by Ki-duk Kim and starring Seung-yeon Lee and Hee Jae, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz. Metro Santa Cruz staff writer Richard von Busack also appears on Santa Cruz Community Television's 'CinemaScene.'

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From the May 25-June 1, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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