Silence Is Golden in '3-Iron'

Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon, left) falls in love with squatter Tae-suk (Jae Hee) in
Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon, left) falls in love with squatter Tae-suk (Jae Hee) in "3-Iron." (By Woo Jong-il -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

THINK OF "3-Iron," from Korean director Kim Ki-duk ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring"), as a kind of fairy-tale love story -- only not the kind where the Boy sweeps the Girl off her feet, proposes marriage and the two grow old together in a picturesque cottage somewhere in the country. In this one, the Boy (Jae Hee) breaks into the Girl's (Lee Seung-yeon) house, fixes her broken bathroom scale, attacks her abusive husband with several well-struck golf balls when the man of the house arrives home unexpectedly and then carries her off on his motorbike to share his life of urban trespass, at least for a while.

It's actually quite satisfying, in a weird, magical-realism sort of way that manages to disturb and confound as much as it appeases the romantic. By the end, incidentally, not a word will have been exchanged between -- let alone uttered by -- the Boy and the Girl.

He is Tae-suk, a sweet and decidedly unlarcenous B&E man who roams the city leaving takeout coupons on people's doorknobs and then picking the locks of those homes whose residents have not removed the fliers for more than a day. Moving into these empty houses and apartments for a night or two at a time, he helps himself to his unsuspecting hosts' food, beds and showers, but not before doing their laundry, watering their plants and repairing any broken small appliances that might be lying about. (I guess that's his way of giving back to the community.)

She is Sun-hwa, the pretty but battered wife of a wealthy man who is away on business. When Tae-suk slips uninvited into her house one evening, where she has been cowering with a black eye and fat lip in the dark for who knows how long, Sun-hwa is startled by the intruder and surreptitiously watches Tae-suk make himself at home.

After determining that he isn't a thief, she reveals herself to him. But before our antihero can leave, he hears Sun-hwa take a call from her husband, realizing from the way she screams into the phone and slams down the receiver that she's not a happy camper. Still he bolts.

Soon, however, Tae-suk's back, rescuing Sun-hwa from spousal assault with her husband's 3-iron and some carefully aimed golf balls. For the next little while, our story turns into something out of a twisted Harlequin romance, as Tae-suk and Sun-hwa scooter around the city, squatting in one vacant home after another and falling deeper and deeper in love. Okay, there is the small matter of a woman who is gravely -- perhaps fatally -- injured by Tae-suk when a golf ball he has been practicing his swing on with the stolen 3-iron breaks free of its roadside tether and hits a passing car.

This is not the fairy tale part of the story. It does contribute to the air of latent, off-kilter violence that lies just beneath the surface of the plot.

The real fairy tale kicks in after Tae-suk is arrested on suspicion of murder when he and Sun-hwa break into the home of an old man -- an old man who just happens to be already lying dead on the kitchen floor -- and the old man's son comes 'round after his father doesn't pick up the phone.

Some strange and violent and inexplicably beautiful things then happen to Tae-suk while he's languishing in jail. Sun-hwa, meanwhile, having been returned to her husband, awaits the release of her lover.

From this point on, the dreamlike atmosphere of the film, which has gradually shifted from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Ghost" mode, plays at full strength. Much of the film's quietly hallucinatory third act, in fact, is never meant to be taken literally.

How do I know that? In hindsight, one clue would certainly be the on-screen legend that flashes just before the closing credits, reading "It's hard to tell that the world we live in is either reality or a dream." But even without that coda -- which, frankly, the movie is better off without -- it's clear from the haunting yet resonant poetry of "3-Iron's" largely wordless narrative that sometimes two people don't even need to be physically together to live happily ever after.

3-IRON (R, 90 minutes) -- Contains violence, nudity, brief sensuality and obscenity. In Korean with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company