Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review – 3-Iron

January 26, 2012

3-Iron - South Korea, 2004

Photographs capture a moment in time that can become less and less recognizable with the passage of time. In photos, people are often decked out in their best attire, their faces covered with broad smiles as if they were truly in a state of bliss, and they are often positioned in such a way as to convey an image of perfection – the perfect friendship, the perfect family, the perfect marriage. Rarely does a camera capture the moment when someone realizes their marriage is over or the moment one realizes a spouse has been unfaithful. And even if they were captured, would people really decorate their apartment with these memories the way they do with the pictures they took of their Hawaiian vacation? I ask this because the pictures we see of families and couples in Ki-Duk Kim’s excellent and well acted film 3-Iron seem wholly misleading, and perhaps that is intentional.

3-Iron is about a young man (Hyun-kyoon Lee) who spends his mornings putting fliers on people’s doorways. Later he returns to see which fliers have been removed, and when he finds one that hasn’t, he takes that to mean that it is safe for him to break in and spend the night there. The first thing he does once he is inside is listen to the message on the answering machine, for that usually tells him how long he can stay there. He rarely takes anything, and he leaves behind practically no trace that someone has been there. However, he does two things that are peculiar. One, he repairs something, and two, he takes a picture in front of a portrait of the apartment’s inhabitants. Is he trying to be part of the family, or is his collection of photos the modern-day equivalent of a photo album, a vast record of his many travels and adventures?

It is on one of these escapades that he makes what could possibly be a grave error – he neglects to check the house completely before he begins to settle in. The walls of this particular house are covered with blown up black-and-white pictures of a rather stunning nude model, and on the tables can be found small collections of her photos, as well. It reminded me of the bedroom walls of teenagers who express their admiration or obsession with their current idols by hanging up picture after picture of them. Eventually, pictures such as these are either replaced by those of newer stars or taken down entirely as reality sets in that most of us are not likely to ever have a chance at courting the celebrity of our dreams. However, if you look closely at the woman (Seung-yeon Lee) we see crouching in the corner of a room, unsure what to make of her uninvited visitor, she does bear a striking resemblance to the woman in all of the photos, and soon it becomes clear that someone has indeed married the object of his obsession. The bruises on her face, however, reveal just how imperfect that match has been. Eventually, she will leave with the young man. Is this unrealistic? Perhaps. But consider what she was trying to leave behind.

It’s tempting to look at each of the houses the two visit together as a step toward a plane of existence that is somehow more honest and decent than the one just before it, for the homes they stay in seem to be increasing in beauty and comfort, and each level of comfort brings the two of them closer to what may be true love. Of course, this does not mean that each of the apartments is a perfect experience, yet each of them seems to represent a stage in both their individual recovery from traumatic experiences and their progression towards a utopian state, one which is ultimately unattainable. Soon it becomes clear that there are too many obstacles standing in their way, one of which is a husband who just can’t let go of his prized possession and another a police officer who seems obsessed with locking the young man up.

For most of 3-Iron, the audience is presented with a fairly understandable and semi-realistic story. I say “semi” because the film’s lead characters go through practically the entire film without speaking to each other. However, realistic or not, there is something enthralling about this aspect of the film, and it reinforces the notion that it is the little things that send the clearest message. The revving of a motorcycle. Standing in front of a makeshift golf tee knowing someone is about to swing a club. Appearing next to someone just as he is about to take a picture. There’s never a moment when we don’t understand the message behind these actions. Yet I believe there’s another reason why the characters do not speak. Perhaps not having a voice also goes hand in hand with not experiencing joy. This may explain why the only words that the woman utters are the ones that they are.

3-Iron, like Kim’s earlier film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, depicts a world in which lessons are learned the hard way and in which it is often difficult to remain completely innocent. It seems to suggest that happiness sometimes means co-existing with evil and being unable to change it. It is a film well aware that every action has a reaction and that not every action by a decent person is just or has the desired result. In fact, by the end of 3-Iron, we are left with many more questions that answers, and the final moments are particularly challenging. Just how much of what we have seen has been real, and how much of it has been a reality that the characters have created for themselves? It’s tough to say. And yet, what I will remember most about 3-Iron is the hypnotic sense of hope it inspired in me. There’s an old saying in English: Time and tide wait for no man. I think we should change that to Time and tide come to everyone. I suppose our challenge is knowing what to do when they do come. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

4 stars

*3-Iron is in Korean with English subtitles.

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