3-Iron (2004)

Dir. by Kim Ki-duk

Jae Hee plays Tae-suk, a young man who breaks into homes, prepares meals, bathes and naps, then repays the homeowner’s generosity by performing small acts of kindness: washing clothes, repairing broken electronics, and the like. While squatting in the most opulent of his many homes, Tae-suk discovers that he is not alone. Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yun), a former model, is trapped there by her husband, bruised and beaten. Tae-suk rescues her, and the two become accomplices and lovers, moving from house to house in complete silence, never speaking even a word to one another.

The description of 3-Iron in the TIFF catalog begins with the following quote from Kim:

All of us are empty houses, waiting anxiously for somebody to unlock and liberate us….

It’s the perfect synopsis of 3-Iron, a fable for our times. Each house that Tae-suk enters acts as an embodiment of its absent owner, and with time and repetition we in the audience begin to anticipate the sameness of it all — the conventions, the status symbols, the stuff. Even Sun-hwa, when we first meet her, is property, and the joy of watching 3-Iron comes from seeing her beauty emerge along with her individualized identity. The bruises on her face fade as she gains confidence and as her fate becomes more tightly bound to Tae-suk’s.

3-Iron is one of the films that I saw at TIFF that I feel could benefit from some trimming, and I’ll be curious to see if the cut that showed at Toronto is the same version released in the West. (3-Iron was picked up for distribution soon after its first screening.) The film gets its title from the golf club that Tae-suk and several other characters use to enact vengeance upon one another, and while it makes for a nice metaphor (what better symbol to show the divide between the haves and have-nots?), several of the more violent sequences created frustrating tonal shifts and pacing problems, particularly an odd scene that takes place in an underground parking garage, which could be cut completely.

Otherwise, though, I quite liked 3-Iron. The final act of the film shows Tae-suk alone in a prison cell, where he seems to transform slowly into a ghost. The sequences are just stunning to look at, and they’re cut together with a real grace. Again, like a fable, there’s something almost magical about the prison scenes, and they contain some of the images that have lingered longest in my imagination. Not a perfect film, but one that I will look forward to revisiting.