Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review – The Bow

April 5, 2012

The Bow – South Korea, 2005

It all looks so beautiful – the open sea, the gorgeous sunsets that appear nightly, the constant ebb and flow of fresh faces than arrive to recline and fish the night away. There’s also the owner of the boat – a quiet man with a face full of hair who looks as if he enjoys the isolation that living at sea affords him. And then there’s the girl who lives on the boat with him, a beauty whose eyes radiate and whose smile captivates. As the film progresses, we see the two of them exchange glances frequently – his express a bit more concern than hers, and hers convey a sense of joy and security. Twice we see young overzealous customers get out of hand, and twice their efforts are discouraged by their expert marksmanship with a bow and arrow, once his, once hers. And then there are the peculiar yet fascinating fortune telling sessions, during which the girl swings merrily in front of a painting of a Buddhist goddess as arrows fly either behind or in front of her. She seems completely confident that the man shooting the arrows will not cause her any harm. Later we learn that the man tenderly bathes her in the evening, that he sleeps on the top bunk above her, and that every night he reaches down and takes her hand in his. It is not uncommon for their hands to remain locked throughout the night. As I said, it all seems so idyllic.

That the girl is sixteen and the man much older than that is the first sign that something may be amiss. It soon becomes apparent that the young girl never leaves the boat, and there’s also the matter of the man’s calendar. Two things are peculiar about that: the “x” that he places on it at the end of each day and the day that is marked in red, wedding day. This begs the question: Does the young girl know that the man who has raised her since she was six intends to marry her? Here, the film is open to interpretation. To believe she doesn’t know would be to say that she is oblivious to her surroundings, unaware of the rumors that are whispered by the men who come to fish on the boat and ignorant of the contents of the packages that the man brings back with his whenever he returns from the mainland. However, it’s equally difficult to imagine the two of them having sat down and seriously discussed it. After all, how does a man explain to the young woman he’s been presumably raising as a daughter that he’d like to marry her?

The arrival of a non-aggressive, clean-looking young man, changes everything, for he stirs in the young girl a passion that she has not known before. Perhaps this is the moment when she becomes aware of the difference between parental love and emotional love.

Kim Ki-duk unsettling film The Bow poses more questions than it answers, and its final act will no doubt cause a certain degree of head scratching. Are we meant see the older man as the equivalent of the rude sexist men he has had to defend the girl from throughout the film? Is the man’s daily habit of playing music a sign of his tranquility and peaceful nature, or is the bow used to release some of the desires and sexual frustrations that he feels? As the film progresses, we’re forced to look back at the film’s opening scenes and wonder if what we saw as beautiful was in fact quite the opposite. For example, is there an implied threat in the man’s method of fortune telling, a not so subtle message that her life is very much in his hands?

Like 3-Iron, The Bow is told without much in the way of dialogue, even though it is clear that neither of the two central characters are mute. Ki-duk’s films are a reminder that spoken word is not always necessary to convey meaning or establish characters. Sometimes we can see more in a glance or in the sudden onset of shyness and shame. In addition, what the older man does with his calendar tells us more than mere words would about his fear that he is losing what he has worked ten years to achieve. The film also does not present the girl’s interest in the young man as unadulterated love; rather, it presents it as the catalyst through which an awakening is stirred. Perhaps it is the beginning of the end of a very long Oedipal Cycle.

The film’s only misstep is perhaps its awkward ending, one that is heavy on symbolism and takes the film in a direction that many audience members will not expect or know what to make of. To me, there’s no reason to inject this kind of symbolism into a movie that is as grounded in reality as this one is. It’s as if Kim wants us to suddenly see the older man in a way that the film has not established and that the character has not earned. The ending is also likely to leave many of its viewers confused instead of satisfied, trying desperately to grasp the elusive meaning behind its discomforting symbolism. It’s unfortunate. One of the golden rules of cinema is to leave the audience satisfied at the end, regardless of how disappointing the rest of the film has been. The Bow takes the opposite approach, for its intoxicating beginning is undone by its final moments, and audience members may be more puzzled than pleased when the film is over. It’s a peculiar way to end an otherwise fascinating film. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*The Bow is in Korean with English subtitles.

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