The young man’s job is ostensibly to leave takeout menus on people’s front doors. If the menus are still there when he returns later in the day, he breaks in — he’s quite handy with his tools — settles down for a little while, and makes himself at home while everyone else is out. Sometimes he does the owners’ laundry, or fixes things that are broken. For the most part, he slips in and out of other people’s lives like a ghost.
One day he ends up at the door of a large mansion. He soaks in the tub, practices his golf swing, waters the plants, repairs an inaccurate bathroom scale. He also discovers a woman, as silent as he is, sporting a split lip and a bruised eye courtesy of her husband. The husband himself is alternately cruel and comforting, trying to command love from her when it must be earned instead. The young man and the husband come to blows, in a manner of speaking, and she leaves with this curious stranger to experience something like freedom with him.
After breaking into an apartment, he makes himself at home and repairs things
until the tenants return ... and with any luck, he doesn't get caught.
3-iron (or Bin-jip, as it’s known in its native Korean) is actually not about this strange man, but rather the effect he has on other people. He comes to us with no history, no apparent motives, nothing more than just this one basic set of behaviors. He is like a benevolent spirit that dwells in some place for a time, leaving behind good fortune and then moving on. We learn a little more about him later — that he has a college degree, but chose instead to live like this — but what’s most important about him is what he does here and now, in front of us.
Not a word passes between this young man and his new companion, but none are really needed. They enter an apartment, share a meal, wash their clothes, pour each other whiskey or tea, and never once speak to each other. Normally this would seem like a gimmick, but 3-iron builds such tremendous emotional honesty with its audience through its early scenes that what takes place between them feels more like a vow of silence that neither of them dare violate. They share a need that is bigger than language, and that penetrates everything they do.
At one point they discover a man has died in one of “their” apartments, and they tenderly wrap the body in a makeshift shroud of curtains and bury it. They cannot remain ghosts forever, however. The son and daughter of the dead man turn up unexpectedly, and they’re arrested and questioned by the police, who find it hard to believe they didn’t steal anything from all the houses they broke into. There’s no room in their purview for people like this, whose motives cannot be discerned at a glance.
3-iron was directed by Ki-duk Kim, whose Isle also featured two people sharing a bond greater than language. I also liked the film he made immediately before this, Samaria, and I admired Isle even when it did its damndest to alienate the audience. Like many of the new breed of Korean directors, Kim tackles material most American directors would steer clear of; Samaria dealt with teenage prostitution, and Isle featured a pair of characters whose mutual sexual obsessions end in mutilation and suicide. He also has many films that are gentler and no less insightful, such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring Again, which charted the life of a Buddhist monk (and which I need to see as a follow-up to another great Korean movie about the same subject, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?).
The last scenes in 3-iron are probably not intended to be taken literally, and if you don’t want them spoiled, feel free to skip this paragraph. In them, we see the young man returning to the places he invaded before, then paying one last visit to the woman and her husband — although the way things are filmed, we have to wonder if he has indeed become a ghost, or if we are now seeing things metaphorically instead of literally. And because what came before has been so strong and sustained, this shift in approach actually helps the movie instead of harming it.
Most movies feel obliged to explain everything, and in the end, give us information but not truth. Many Asian movies — Japanese and Korean films, especially — are not always enslaved by this same obligation, and can cut more to the emotional heart of a story without getting distracted along the way. Takeshi Kitano does this a lot in his movies, when he cuts out all the clutter other films feel obliged to throw in. Kim seems to do much of the same thing, and to much the same effect: he is not interested in plots, but people, and leaving out the technical details that would preoccupy a lesser movie is a way to get close to that.