"3-Iron" is one strange movie. Kim Ki-duk relies mostly on silence to tell the story of an young man who distributes junk-mail leaflets door-to-door, then returns to break into one of the houses where the residents have apparently gone out of town. The man (Hyun-kyoon Lee) lives there rent-free for a day or so, then "pays" back his unsuspecting hosts by doing their laundry by hand or repairing apparently broken things.
On the commentary, the director says that it was based on an incident where he returned home to find that someone had "put junk mail in my keyhole," and wondered whether this was the way that people break into houses. His take on the main character is that he's a thrill-seeker, a young man who has an expensive motorcycle and therefore presented as someone who could certainly afford his own apartment. We don't know why he does this, what he does for a living, or if he's the son of wealthy parents who doesn't need to work. We only see this dimension of his life, with no backstory to add texture.
But as I watched this oddly mesmerizing film, it occurred to me that I was seeing a fetishist at work.
Yes, he may time it so that his stays all but end when his "hosts" return, forcing him to slip away from them in a nick of time. But there's a lot of kinky stuff going on here. I mean, this fellow gets off on object-surrogate intimacy the same way that guys do who are willing to plunk down big money to buy worn women's undergarments over the Internet.
This fellow, an apparent drifter named Tae-suk, watches their TV, wears their clothes, eats their food, and sleeps on their couches or beds. But he also thumbs through their photo albums, and like the pervs who film themselves engaged in sexual acts, he takes a picture of himself in front of a photo of his victims/hosts, or in front of some of their objects. And (ewww!) he uses their toothbrushes. The images that fill the frame all but confirm that there's fetishism at work here. There are plenty of shots of feet, there's hair-cutting, and there are more than a few shots of this "harmless" intruder handling bras and other undergarments as he washes them by hand and hangs them outside to dry.
Like a large Korean elf, he finds things—a pellet gun, a clock, etc.—that seem in need of repair, and he tinkers with them and puts them back in working order. And we're led to believe, in the absence of any other implied aspects of his life, that this pattern repeats itself. But things change when he breaks into a house where a battered wife cowers in a closet, at first oblivious to his presence. Then she's aware of him, but silent. At that point, the voyeur and burglar of people's intimate lives becomes himself the brief target of voyeurism.
The film gets its title from the golf club that he uses in practice at the home of this well-to-do but obviously oppressed woman, Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee), and just as we are transfixed by the man's break-in shenanigans, after Tae-suk has a run-in with her abusive husband (Hyuk-ho Kwon), she gets on the back of his motorcycle and accompanies him to the next round of houses.
When you begin with a premise that borders on the outlandish, there's no place to go in the second act, when things are supposed to escalate, but in the direction of the even more outlandish. And that's what happens here. If you think too much about it, you begin to question the logic of it all and ask more questions about Tae-suk's actions or the missing "footage" of his life. But it's fascinating to watch this apparent fetishist at work, and a clever premise to all but craft a film that feels like mime. Though things escalate, even to the point of our disbelief, the tone and pacing remain consistently calm and low-key throughout. And that too is interesting.
Kim Ki-duk says he took just a month to write the screenplay and only 16 days to film this low-budget, minimal character study. But maybe silence is his forte. When an occasional line is spoken, as when a policeman says, "It's hard to tell if what we live in is even a reality or a dream," they seem really heavy-handed. The film is more successful when it revels in subtlety, and when it gives us a glimpse into the wide variety of homes that the director deliberately wanted us to invade, to get a sense of different levels of life in Korea. There are also levels of photography to admire, as the director employs some extreme close-ups, bird's-eye shots, harsh-angle shots that magnify the foreshortening effects of things in the foreground, and shots that feel ripe with symbolic content.
Video: The picture quality is quite good, because "3-Iron" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Extreme close-ups are still grain-free, and the colors are vivid but not oversaturated.
Audio: The soundtrack is Korean 5.1 Dolby Digital, or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English or French subtitles. Mostly it's ambient noise, though, because dialogue is as scarce as character development. Everything exists in a mostly-silent present.
Extras: The only extra is the director's audio commentary, which is offered in Korean with subtitles.
Bottom Line: "3-Iron" is a strange and poetic film, but it won't be for everyone's tastes. If it's satisfying, it's because of the artistic choices that the director has made. Ultimately, it's a voyeuristic film that may not provide enough resolution or insight to sate some viewers' appetites.