One of the initial assumptions I had when beginning my film viewing is that the independent film was a venue that existed only with American cinema. However, this absurd notion was quickly shattered with the discovery of world cinema that also finds an attachment to low budget arthouse filmmaking that is equally concerned with its cinematic substance as it is with its social commentary. Furthermore, as I delve deeper into the crevices of individual countries cinema I am surprised to find stellar indie films right below the surface, as is certainly the case with Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron. Like so many indie films, the plot borders on impossibility and is exceptionally quirky, yet it what is becoming nearly assumed Korean theme, darkness, violence and revenge all exist in the narrative as well. 3-Iron still seems to have a bit more than it’s competitors and I will use a phrase I have used in the past when describing various indie films on my blog and say that the film has a heartbeat, in that it touches deeply onto something integral to human existence and does so in a matter of 80 some odd minutes. It is an earnest and rewarding film to those who watch it, and a deeply ponderous film on the nature of human interactions.
The narrative in absurdist fashion follows the life of a young rebellious male who spends his days and nights breaking into and borrowing from houses that are briefly unoccupied by their residents who are away on vacations or business trips. He discovers his places by cleverly placing food advertisements on the individual house doors, stopping at the places hours later choosing those locations that have yet to remove the advertisement. While staying in these places he often eats the food available and takes pictures of himself in front of the various photos within the house. In each house the young man is also careful to wash the clothing for the absent persons and always alters at least one items within the house, whether it be a clock or scale. He seems set to engage in his behavior for years to come, until he is discovered by a wife who spends her days lackadaisically wandering around her house. Initially alarmed by the intruder, the wife says nothing and simply observes the man steadily growing fond of his actions and methodologies. Eventually she becomes enamored with him and engages with him, until her husband returns home enraged. Realizing the tragedy of her situation, the young man attacks the husband and takes the wife with him to move from house to house. The husband begins tracking the couple down and eventually finds them after the two call about a dead body discovered in one house. The young man is jailed and the wife is forced to return to husband who now makes it is goal to be “better” for her, although he clearly has no desire to do so forever. Meanwhile, the young man practices escaping from the prison and is eventually successful after learning to move and exist as a ghost. He returns to the couples house and exists in the shadow of the husband, becoming a lover to the wife right under the husbands gaze. It should also be noted that this film exists with little dialogue between the husband and wife and absolutely no dialogue whatsoever between the young man and the wife, it is truly a feat.
What then can be made of such a sparse, yet critically dense film. There is certainly the possibility that the entire narrative is related to issues of guilt and the ghosts that exist in such a state of mind. Perhaps the young man only represents the lingering problems of the past as he passes between each household, in some instances causing a child to act violently towards his mother or in others for an artist to become exceptionally paranoid. However, this reading is a bit to vague and really not likely. It is also possible that it is simply intended to display the various states of living within Korea as it struggles through the 21st century, whether it be those in abject poverty, or those with considerable wealth and privacy. The film does do this with great efficiency, as it displays a diverse population that is both old and young, however, it is unlikely that it should be read as the sole commentary within the film. Instead, I would suggest that this film is very much about the crumbling of a marriage between a misogynist and powerful husband and his submissive yet depressed wife. Her inability to speak is simply a reflection of her lack of power and her husbands irate nature and continual threats are his actions to reassert his masculinity. It is not until the wife is allowed an opportunity to extract herself from her situation that she seems to become more enlivened, considering that she essentially discovers a new reason to exist. More interesting, however, is that that wife continues to remain silent in her new endeavors, not because she is unallowed to speak, but because she has found a partnership with a person who is also lacking a voice, but manages to express himself in the world regardless. The wife is clearly inspired by this and engages in a world where she has a voice and a form of expression, most evident when she rearranges and rethinks a picture of herself that is hanging in one visited apartment. Not only does she control the expression, she also controls how her body is being used and depicted in a very literal manner. Finally, she comes to create a bond with another individual so great that it can go unspoken and she returns to her husband empowered and separated from his violent hand. She has reached a freedom and enlightenment within the film that to some degree reflects her escape from a troubled marriage. While we are left to ponder the future of those involved, it is clear that the past of problems, are likely to stay far in fading horizon.
3-Iron is an exceptionally good film and well worth watching. However, owning a copy is only necessary for the diehard Korean cinema fans.