If I define a film as being poetic realism one could certainly assume it to be Italian or French, if I add that it is set on a boat with noticeably sparse dialogue one might narrow the field down to a Scandinavian offering. If I add that it deals with some heavy issues of patriarchal oppression and problematic ties to the womb, it might be situated within the Spanish filmmaking tradition. However, if I include all of these factors and mention that the film climaxes in a moment of violence that has an inherent tie to sexual awakening then it is highly likely that the film is probably comfortably residing within the New Korean tradition. Ki-duk Kim, who has been reviewed multiple times on this blog manages to create such a film in The Bow, something so surreally poetic that I felt moved in a way emotionally more indicative of melodrama. I have not encountered a soundtrack so perfect for a film in quite awhile, both in is serene almost ethereal quality, as well as its constant intersections within the diegetic world of the film. The acting in this movie, for being a somewhat absurdist plot, is well-executed and quite believable. It manages to take a narrative space that is quite condensed and spread out a message about humanity, or at least the South Korean notion of humanity, throughout the film. I am coming to realize that when one discusses the work of Ki-duk Kim one must necessarily consider a multitude of narrative possibilities, as well as an incredible intersection of identities. While it is not as diverse in The Bow as it is in some of his earlier works, one must nonetheless contest a variety of class, gender and race identities before truly configuring the message promoted by the popular and controversial filmmaker. I have been dabbling in finding specific Korean directors to write lengthier research pieces on an realize that Chan-wook Park is far to mainstream, while Chang-dong Lee proves to obscure. Perhaps with a few more films by Ki-duk Kim under my belt I could go with his oeuvre, because it is equal parts problematic and revolutionary, a great trove of research to any burgeoning scholar.
The Bow focuses on life as it occurs on a small fishing boat, somewhere in the non-descript waters surrounding Korea. The young girl (Yeo-reum Han) finds herself a member of a crew that aside from her only consists of an old man, played magnificently by Seong-hwang Jeon, who appears to be keeping a schedule of her aging, with the intent of marrying her upon her seventeenth birthday. Viewers are provided with little context as to why she resides on this boat, aside from her initial arrival some ten years earlier. What is made quite clear is the old mans severe protection of the girl from the lecherous advances of other fishers, going so far as to ward of their lingering touches with warning shots from a steady and precise bow and arrow. Furthermore, the old man provides fortunes via firing the arrow as they young girl swings back and forth, narrowly dodging the missiles as they whiz by. It seems as though the old man will receive his reward for stalwart patience, until the emergence of a particularly dashing young man sends the young girl into a infatuated tizzy, one which is clearly shared by the man who provides the young girl with some of her first glimpses into the technological world outside the boat, via a walkman and cell phone. Of course, the old man contests this and makes certain that she is distanced from him, only to be threatened that he will return with the girls parents to save her from the boat. When the man does return with news that her parents are indeed seeking her out, the young girl becomes confused and grows weary of her place on the boat, pushing the old man away despite his best efforts. Agreeing to have his fortune read, the young man discovers that he is not the rightful owner of the young girls heart, but, nonetheless, demands that she be allowed to leave her prison. Reluctantly agreeing to this the old man attempts suicide only for the young girl to return and marry him and act that is never consummated sexually, at least in the traditional sense, a carefully placed arrow might say otherwise. The film then ends with the boat sinking into a bottomless darkness, the girl waving all the while.
The criticisms run deep for this film, not unlike the ocean which the boat floats ever so stagnantly on throughout the narrative. Specifically, as they relate to notions of oppression, all of which are enacted upon the body of the young girl. Firstly, as a female body she is a point of objectification to the various males throughout the film, firstly, the old man who has sexual intentions for, problematically, guised in earnest care. However, the various men who come and go from the boat seem to desire conquest or sexual satisfaction, undertaking acts that range from innocent snuggling to foul placement of fish bait. No protection is provided for the girl that is not predicated on another's own sexual desires. She is clearly the othered body in the narrative, as far as sexuality is concerned. Beyond this, she is also oppressed in terms of class presence, as a surrogate daughter to a fisher she lacks wealth and is invariably unable to expand her worldview, this is reaffirmed when she is given headphones as a gift, only to use them without realizing that they provide no sound when not attached to an output. Furthermore, one can find points of oppresion that emerge from the young girls lack of education or apparent muteness as a handicap. These forms of restraint are eventually broken in the closing moments of the film as she explodes in a near orgasmic manner in her troublesome sexual awakening scene, yet what her minds opens up to is likely far more than purely sexual notions.
Key Scene: Pretty much any of the moments involving the bow violin music are aurally and visually pleasing.
This is a solid Korean film and perhaps the most arthouse of any seen to date, with the exception of some of Ki-duk Kim's earlier work and is well worth owning. A new copy of the DVD is not terribly expensive either.