'3-Iron' Opens A Locked Door To the Heart

Words fail: Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) and Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) bond without saying much in
Words fail: Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) and Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) bond without saying much in "3-Iron." (By Woo Jong-il -- Sony)

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

There's a real mind at work in the cinema of Kim Ki-Duk, the Korean filmmaker whose explorations of spirituality are among the most evocative films being made today. Last year he released "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," about the relationship between an old monk and his acolyte, played out on a small floating monastery in the middle of a serene lake. Now he's back with "3-Iron," a film about a young man who breaks into empty houses and does the laundry, fixes things, waters the plants and helps himself to free food and television.

The premises of these two works couldn't be more different, yet an intelligence connects them. Figuring out that governing intellect, the themes and threads that connect one film to another, is the pleasure of getting to know a great director -- which Kim may well be.

"3-Iron" is a love story between two ethereally beautiful young people, neither of whom says a word to the other. Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) is a gentle drifter who places advertising fliers on the doors of houses and apartments. When he returns and finds a flier still on the door knob, he knows he's found an empty house. It's not a fool-proof system for free lodging -- people return early, or, in the case of Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), the abused wife of a wealthy brute, they sometimes hide in their own houses.

Tae-suk is a quiet collector of small skills, lock picking, cooking, small appliance repair, and it is these skills, and the way in which they allow him to inhabit other people's spaces, that root him in the world. Though he's broken into her home, Sun-hwa observes the young man and is touched by his fastidiousness and care. After her husband returns, and continues to abuse her, she escapes with Tae-suk into his peripatetic life, and into the homes of strangers. When the couple enter a sad, shabby apartment in a poor district of town, they find the body of an old man, who has died with only a small dog to keep him company. So they clean up the mess, carefully wrap the body into a shroud, and bury it with ritual ceremony. That a young man, living on the margins of society, essentially an outlaw, knows these deeply traditional rites and practices them with such loving attention give depth to Kim's character and reveal one of his central preoccupations: how spiritual people must negotiate the tension between living in the world and living apart from it.

"3-Iron" is very scant on dialogue and plot, but it is rich in invention, particularly gesture. The two protagonists may say nothing to each other, but you sense them listening, intensely, to each other's inner life. They invent ways of interacting that are laden with meaning, and much of the pleasure of this film is watching their private language take form. As he did in "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring," Kim works with the barest of materials but returns the viewer's attention to the pure visual pleasure of filmmaking.

It isn't a perfect film. Golf never quite becomes the metaphor that Kim might wish it to be. (The title refers to the least-used club in the golf bag and emphasizes the film's concern with living lightly in the world.) And the story is filled with small implausibilities. But by the end, when a young man who has spent his life trying to disappear finally succeeds, the director has created a unique world, filled with deeply human characters, who have passed through trauma into some higher condition. It's a film that will stay with you.

3-Iron (90 minutes, in Korean with subtitles, at Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for violence, nudity, brief sexuality and obscenity.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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