Last year, Kim Ki-duk’s Buddhist allegory “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring” became the most popular South Korean film ever released in the U.S. Its 2.4 million-dollar gross wouldn’t make James Cameron jealous, but it did far better than more populist Korean genre fare.
Its success has pissed off quite a few people, particularly among Asian cinema’s gatekeepers. British critic and film festival programmer Tony Rayns laid the gauntlet down in the November/December 2004 issue of Film Comment, calling Kim “the overrated poster boy.” While making many valid criticisms of Kim’s work, especially its sexism, Rayns coyly alluded to Kim’s sex life and pointed out that his films haven’t been commercially successful in Korea––as though that were a genuine strike against them––all in a nastily snide tone.
The entire article is permeated with the attitude that Rayns is the only man who can save Western audiences from being duped by this fraudulent impostor. Despite being a Caucasian Englishman, he’s apparently the arbiter of Asian authenticity. His piece triggered much discussion on blogs and on-line message boards, most of it more gentlemanly and nuanced than the article itself, and responses in other magazines as well.
Critics of “3-Iron” have accused it of ripping off Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s 1995 “Vive L’Amour.” The two films share a propensity for silence, a character who breaks into apartments and a few moments of physical comedy. However, the influence of Wong Kar-wai’s “Chung King Express” is felt at least as strongly, particularly in the notion of a “burglar” cleaning an apartment rather than stealing from it. The central couple in “3-Iron”is a pair of mute outcast lovers who would have fit snugly into Takeshi Kitano’s “Dolls.”
Ultimately, Tsai’s sensibility is far from Kim’s. The characters of “Vive L’Amour” live under a severe emotional repression lifted only in its final scene, while those of “3-Iron,” even if they rarely speak, are much more capable of expressing their feelings, often through violence. I can’t imagine Tsai including any scenes of two lovers tenderly kissing to piano music.
Homeless, Tae-suk (Jae Hee) spends his days looking for empty houses to live in for a day or two. He puts up flyers in the doors, venturing into places where they haven’t been removed. He never steals anything. In one house, he watches and finally meets Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), a victim of violence at her husband’s hands. After a period of initial wariness, the two fall in love. When Sun-hwa’s husband tries to rape her, Tae-suk grabs a 3-iron golf club and pelts him with balls. He runs away with Sun-hwa, continuing his nomadic lifestyle but trying to provide for her.
Kim Ki-duk is clearly fascinated by violence against women. In “Bad Guy,” made in 2001 but released in the U.S. a few months ago, the implausibility of the plot, in which a college student who falls in love with her pimp after being forced into prostitution, was exceeded only by its brazen misogyny. “3-Iron” is more palatable and complex.
In Kim’s world, men are brutish predators and women the victimized prey, sometimes willingly. Golf is a symbol of male aggression. Even Tae-suk injures a woman, albeit inadvertently. He and Sun-hwa are both abused waifs. At one point, they even sport matching bruises. Their relationship has a real give-and-take, with Tae-suk taking on most of the chores. He suffers a great many blows, while Sun-hwa knocks the glasses off her husband’s face. The startling ending, which preserves Kim’s politically incorrect reputation, is unlikely to please feminists, but as sexual politics go, “3-Iron” is a vast improvement over his previous films, even the comparatively gentle “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.”
Kim is working with characters whose precursors can be found as far back as silent cinema. The young Lillian Gish could have played Sun-hwa. Much like Kitano’s “Dolls” and “Hana-bi,” his film’s apparent austerity offsets its underlying sentimentality. Beneath the surface, “3-Iron” is a melodrama, but it’s also filed with an uncanny sense of domesticity’s weirdness. That’s its most strikingly original quality. The cinematography is tinted a slightly unnatural green.
Of course, Kim’s too perverse to imagines bliss without some major caveats or to come up with easy solutions for his characters’ predicaments. Still, “3-Iron” suggests that he might be a romantic at heart, even if “Bad Guy” made his notion of love seem ridiculous and oppressive. If Kim is guilty of bad faith, it’s not because he borrows all his ideas from “Vive L’Amour.”
“3-Iron” is a well-crafted but somewhat generic Asian art film, full of commonly used tropes like framing characters in a doorway. Kim is talented enough to pull it off. In fact, its look is quite striking. However, it feels custom-designed for film festivals. In fact, there’s a cozy familiarity to it, more akin to a Hollywood romantic comedy than the genuinely groundbreaking work of directors like Tsai, Wong and Kitano.
Does the nastiness of “Bad Guy” and “The Isle” or the exoticism and Buddhist chic of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” represent the real Kim Ki-duk? His filmography is too large to draw easy conclusions, and most of it has never been shown in the U.S. For the space of one film, at least, he’s made a touching love story that brings a new vitality to its well-worn tropes. The poster boy has finally earned his praise.