3-Iron (South Korea/Japan, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spoilers ahoy! It's virtually impossible to write a meaningful review of this film without giving away things. However, since 3-Iron isn't really plot-centered, it's hard to say how much these revelations will "spoil" the viewing experience. Not much, in my opinion, but I include this warning because I'm going to talk about the beginning, the middle, and the end. Paragraph #6 is where the most revealing spoilers are found.

I don't often refer to a film as "haunting," because I think it's an overused term. To me, a haunting film is one that relentlessly stays with the viewer for hours, or even days, after a viewing. Its memory refuses to diminish and it demands rumination. A good movie isn't always haunting, and a haunting one isn't always good, but there often is a correlation. Such is the case with 3-Iron, the latest film from acclaimed Korean director Kim Ki-duk (whose Spring Summer Fall Winter…and Spring made my Top 10 list last year). This enigmatic and in some ways maddening motion picture has the power to haunt every viewer it reaches.

Kim tells his entire story with minimal dialogue. In fact, there are lengthy passages in which no one speaks. The two lead characters - Tae-suk (Jae Hee) and Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) - are mute for most of the film. Tae-suk never talks and Sun-hwa only has a few lines near the end. By eliminating dialogue, Kim forces his characters to interact on a non-verbal level, and it intensifies the manifestations of their emotions. Every nuance of body language and each facial expression gains added meaning. These two communicate perfectly, but have no need of words to do so.

3-Iron is a love story of a most unconventional kind. The movie opens by introducing us to Tae-suk, a loner and wanderer who has no job and no residence. Every day, he tapes fast-food flyers across the keyholes to homes. After a certain amount of time has passed, he assumes that the houses where the flyers are untouched are temporarily uninhabited, so he "invites" himself to stay until the residents return from vacation. Tae-suk never damages or steals anything. Instead, he repays the people's unwitting hospitality by watering their plants, doing their wash, and fixing anything that may be broken (like a clock or bathroom scale). By the time they return, he is gone, and most never notice that someone has "invaded" their privacy.

Eventually, considering the uncertain nature of the means by which he procures lodging, Tae-suk makes a mistake and breaks into a house that isn't empty. Hiding in the corner of a back room is Sun-hwa, a model whose face is a patchwork of bruises resulting from her treatment at the hands of an abusive husband (Kwon Hyuk-ho). At first, she is frightened by Tae-suk's intrusion, but when she determines that he means no harm, she begins observing him. When she makes her presence known to him, he is masturbating to nude pictures of her. Tae-suk flees the house, but is drawn back. After confronting Sun-hwa's husband with a golf club and three golf balls, Tae-suk takes off again - this time accompanied by Sun-hwa. Together, they resume Tae-suk's habit of finding new places to spend each night.

3-Iron is divided into three clear acts. In the first, Tae-suk is by himself. This portion of the story introduces us to this odd character who looks like a "punk" but is actually strangely gentle. The second part develops the romance between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa, two damaged individuals who heal each other. They are fated to fall in love from the moment they meet. We know that and we suspect they do, as well. Their reluctance to speak isn't the only thing they have in common. Then there's the third act, and that's where most of the discussion and speculation surrounding 3-Iron will center.

For most of the movie's final 30 minutes, the lovers are separated. She is at home with her husband, whose jealousy has reached dangerous levels, and he is in jail. In an eerie-yet-touching conclusion, they are united, but Sun-hwa is the only one who can see Tae-suk. Others sense his presence, but cannot observe him. This opens up not only the last act, but the entire movie, to speculation about its reality. (And Kim further muddles matters with a final caption about the difficulty of differentiating dreams from reality.) One possible explanation is that, during his time in prison, Tae-suk achieves a higher level of consciousness where he exists on a mystical plane while retaining the capability to take a physical form at will. But that's not the only plausible interpretation. The dreamlike quality of the movie makes us wonder if one or both of the leads is unreal, and the final image (with them standing on a scale that reads "0") offers the possibility that Tae-suk may have bestowed his abilities on Sun-hwa, allowing her to join his ghostly state of being. Some will be frustrated by 3-Iron's last act. While I don't think all of its works (I would have preferred more of the non-verbal interaction between the leads), I appreciate the possibilities it accesses, and its willingness not to provide neatly-packaged explanations for everything. (A second viewing is helpful in sorting out the third act.)

The film is beautifully composed, although not as visually sumptuous as Spring Summer Fall Winter…and Spring. That's not surprising, because, although 3-Iron is as spiritual in its own way as the earlier movie, it is not as meditative. There are some pastoral, picture-perfect moments, but the camera spends most of its time chronicling the subtle deepening of the relationship between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa.

According to Kim in the press notes, the title has a double meaning. In a concrete sense, it refers to the golf club that is used in several key sequences. Also, since the 3-iron is often the most neglected golf club, there is a symbolic connection to the main characters, both of whom are among life's cast-offs. Those expecting a golf movie or traditional sports narrative are in for a big surprise… and, hopefully, a pleasant one. (Although my belief is that those anticipating something mainstream from 3-Iron will leave the theater baffled.) I have often identified myself as one who values traditional storytelling elements like plot over a more lyrical visual presentation. 3-Iron struck such a deep emotional chord that I was willing, if only for one movie, to put aside that particular prejudice.

3-Iron (South Korea/Japan, 2004)

Director: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Lee Seung-yeon, Jae Hee, Kwon Hyuk-ho, Joo Jin-mo
Screenplay: Kim Ki-duk
Cinematography: Jang Seung-beck
Music: Slvian
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Korean
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1