It won’t ruin anyone’s experience of 3-Iron, the new film by Korean writer and director Kim Ki-duk, to reveal that it closes with a single epigraph: “It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either reality or a dream.” Presumably, the correct translation would replace “that” with “whether”; even so, it’s not the most articulate statement about the nature of existence. Sure, Buddhism has plenty to say about perception, and in this film as elsewhere, Kim displays an interest in Buddhist spirituality.
But 3-Iron shouldn’t (and mostly doesn’t) need the quote. After all, it’s the job of a film to raise questions, and sometimes to answer them, with dramatization. Can you imagine The Godfather closing with: “It’s hard to tell whether going into the family business is a good idea”?
So what is 3-Iron trying to say — or ask? Part of its entertainment lies in puzzling over that question. The frustration is that, one senses, Kim himself is not so sure. A dreamy mood movie with one protagonist who never speaks and another who utters a total of three words (nice work if you can get it), 3-Iron is at times deliciously sensual, creepily somnolent, whimsically spiritual, and disturbingly violent. But it is never quite coherent.
The premise is as follows: A motorcyclist named Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) has a beneficent scam. He canvases houses and apartment buildings with marketing flyers, hanging them on doorknobs. After an interval, he returns, finds a home where the flyer is still in place, and picks the lock. Inside, Tae-suk plays the outgoing answering-machine message — “We’ve left town for a few days” — and sets up shop: watering plants, hand-washing laundry, repairing a mechanical item of some kind. Before eating and settling into bed, he takes a picture of himself, posing in front of a photograph of the lawful residents.
On one such visit, Tae-suk enters a garish home with a garden of statuary. As he tours its rooms, he becomes absorbed in a photograph of a beautiful woman, clearly posed and shot by a professional. What he doesn’t know is that the woman (now with a bruised eye and cut lip) has risen from bed and trailed him around the house. He sees her only when, as he lies masturbating in her bed, she walks in. Then the two begin a silent dance of discovery, broken when her husband returns and beats her — and continuing when Sun-hwa (played by Lee Seung-yeon), the woman, climbs on the back of Tae-suk’s motorcycle and joins him in his peculiar way of life.
Kim’s subject isn’t exactly reality, or even humanity in its regular, day-to-day form. Last year’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring was a morality tale, part parable and part meditation. Situated on a peaceful lake in a breathtaking mountain bowl, it told the story of a monk and his young charge in what might have been a vision of paradise; instead, every segment, or season, was punctured with at least one act of brutality — and an answering punishment. Kim’s ethics seemed awfully severe for someone so in love with natural grandeur, though that may have been his point: We are as brutal as the beasts we are.
3-Iron is less obviously spiritual, less clearly a work of moral philosophy. It’s dreamy, and dreamlike, portraying extraordinary behavior without supplying even a whiff of motivation. (One of the film’s central mysteries is why Tae-suk breaks into houses at all.) And it, too, is salted with brutality. In a film with scarcely any dialogue, the most memorable sound is the swish-thwack of a golf club, slicing the air and then smacking a ball — balls often used to injurious effect. In fact, Kim opens the film with that very sound, though we see neither the club nor the ball: Instead, a net shimmers before a statue, spasming when the ball makes contact. This, we soon learn, is the backyard of the house where Sun-hwa lives, and to which Tae-suk will return.
A 3-iron is, Kim says, golf’s least-used club; like the film’s silent couple, it stands alone, almost invisible, never a real participant in the game. What’s odd about Tae-suk and Sun-hwa is that their quest is not to become more visible but to disappear. They begin the film as shadows and become less vivid, not more: Their wordless love for each other subsumes them into a fairytale of desire and delay. And Tae-suk, imprisoned for a time, meditates himself into an altered, metaphorical state. Sun-hwa can see him, but nobody else can.
Kim may be saying that, in a cruel world, love resorts to fantasy, but halfway through 3-Iron, he shows us a happy, real-world couple. So … what?
It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either reality or a dream.