The old man lives with the young girl on his boat, which they rent out for the day to fishermen, and which along with the endless expanse of the ocean is the entire scope of their existence. She fell into his care years ago, when she was little more than a baby, and has lived her whole life there with him. In two months she will be seventeen, and then he will marry her. Those who know of this arrangement regard the two of them with dismay and distaste, but for the two of them, it is their lives. The old man is also not hesitant to defend this setup with violence: when one of his customers tries to playfully grope the girl, his response is to put an arrow into the wall next to his head.
This is the premise of Ki-duk Kim’s film The Bow, his twelfth movie as director and certainly one of his best. It continues his preoccupation with relationships that are considered transgressive or socially unacceptable, but here he does it in a way that is elegant and direct, and avoids the melodramatic complications that plagued some of his other movies (like Address Unknown). The story has the simplicity of a fable, enhanced all the more by Kim’s preoccupation for characters that are almost entirely silent (3-Iron, The Isle, Bad Guy). Instead of giving them speeches, Kim lets them embody their attitudes; he leaves the words to the people who have nothing to really say.
For the old man and the young girl, the boat they live on
and the ocean they sail across are their entire world.
When we first meet them, the girl and the old man, we can see that they trust each other implicitly. One of the things they do for their customers is a curious fortune-telling show that involves her swinging back and forth alongside the ship while the old man shoots arrows at a target painted on the hull behind her. In most movies something like this would seem ludicrous or contrived, but we see them do it more than once and it makes more sense each time. They trust each other, yes, and also she’s swinging slowly enough that she’s not likely to get hit. How the fortune-telling subjects react to what they see affects what they are told — just as how people see the two of them as a whole affects everything, too.
What is most curious is how the old man’s fascination with the girl not so much perverse and fawning as it is somehow dehumanized. He regards her not as a person, but as a cherished object, like a prize horse: one night while she sleeps, he measures her from head to toe, and reaches down from the top bunk to caress her hand. She hardly seems to mind being treated like this: she’s an odd duck, always smiling dreamily, almost as if she were autistic or retarded. That brings up a question, of course: what would she be if she had not lived like this? But maybe it’s moot — this is how she is, now, and everything that happens to her is going to be in that light regardless.
The balance they live in, indefensible as it may be, is upset when a young
outsider shows a natural interest in the girl that she reciprocates unthinkingly.
This whole issue of mutual trust and dependence gets thrown into relief fairly early in the film when two boorish young fishermen make advances on her. The old man steps in, and they respond by beating him up and tying him up — but she grabs up his bow (the bow of the title, of course) and happily puts arrows into each of them. She’s far from being defenseless or helpless, but is that something she would do for herself alone? Would it matter? Then again, later, she openly caresses the arm of another fisherman who has not even shown interest in her, and when her self-appointed husband-to-be angrily throws the other man off the ship she smiles to herself. She’s proven that she can manipulate him right back, and the question of who’s really in control becomes all the murkier.
Things grow further complicated when another young man appears. She likes him, and she approaches him instead of vice versa. He is not pushy at all, just casual and gentle, and he even gives her his MiniDisc player as a going-away present. The old man resents even this, since he’s provided her with that much more of a connection to the outside world that he has done his best to screen both of them from. The less to get in the way of his plans, the better — but the presence of the young man has already inspired her to start drifting away from him, and towards others. That doesn’t imply, however, that the connections she will form with others will be healthy or informed, and the movie understands that. There are other complications that grow out of this, which I am loathe to discuss openly in a review, but which revolve around some of the obvious implications of what I’ve already mentioned.
The changes set in motion are played out in ways that are both symbolic and realistic,
but which both work thanks to the movie's standing strength as drama.
Kim has made movies I have admired both because of and despite their material. The Bow works precisely because its ideas and its presentation are in sync, and it has plenty of ideas about its seemingly simple material. If you love something, for instance, how much license does that give you over it — including the license to “set it free”? Then there is the movie’s ending, which owes a bit to the similarly quasi-mystical closing of 3-Iron and may turn some people off for that reason. But if you think about how the details of what we see are not as important as the meanings behind them, it makes more sense, and it complements the rest of the film in a way that a more conventional ending might not. It also helps that it comes as the conclusion to a movie that has been strong and sustained and compelling all the way through.