Tuesday, December 13, 2005

When Krishna first put 3-Iron into the Netflix cue, I could not understand why she wanted to see a movie about golf – I was thinking that it must be the Kevin Costner clunker that I’ve flipped past on cable a few times. But it turns out instead to be the newest film available in the U.S. by Ki-duk Kim, whose film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring I looked at here on November 30. Golf is a theme, tho not in any way I could have imagined.

A young man delivers flyers to homes in Korea – I have no way of knowing if this is Seoul or not, and it doesn’t really matter – riding around on his motorbike, taping the flyers to front doors. Later he comes back, finds one that has not had the flyer removed and, using a very professional looking little burglary kit, breaks in. He stays the night, checking out the lives of the people whose home he’s appropriated, then moves on the following day or so – the exception being if their answering machine message suggests that they will be gone longer. He’s closer to Goldilocks than to a traditional burglar in his approach – he invariably fixes broken objects, from toys to clocks to scales. He takes his photo with a digital camera as a keepsake and washes and dries any dirty laundry he finds. This is homelessness with high style.

All of which works until he enters a home whose flyer hasn’t been removed not because the occupant is away, but rather because she has been so battered by her husband that she has spent the last day cowering in her bedroom. He doesn’t see her at first, so she watches him as he fixes her scale, does her laundry then goes out into the yard – this couple has serious money – and begins practicing his driving skills with the husband’s 3-iron and a tacky driving cage set up in their garden. She watches as he cooks and bathes and doesn’t confront him until he’s in her bed.

When the husband returns home the next day, he finds the young man still driving golf balls into the cage & goes predictably ballistic. The young man renders him harmless (by means of golf) and he and the wife escape on his motorbike, taking only the 3-iron and a golf ball or two, returning to his life of homelessness. In the afternoons, after putting up their flyers and before returning to find their home for the night, they hang around parks where he takes a golf ball that he has tethered with wire around the base of a tree & practices driving. At one moment in the film this has horrific consequences, tho not for either of the protagonists who at this point are both still curiously immune from the implications of their actions.

I should note that at this point in the film – well over a half hour of it – neither character has spoken. In fact, the woman goes some 85 minutes into this 88-minute film before she says a word. The young man never says any. There is dialog, but it occurs around them, from the husband, from returning homeowners, from cops and the like.

Their adventures as a couple follow a predictable enough narrative – basically, every way they can have problems with the premise that nobody’s home turn up – and the film follows a sequence as stately in its own movement as Spring was in its five stages, tho in this case the segments might be called before jail, in jail, after jail. The photography – especially in the jail sequence – is often spectacular, and once you settle into the realization that these characters are just never going to speak (or almost never), it’s a lovely little film, sort of When Harry Met Sally as told by some combination of Samuel Beckett & Quentin Tarantino.

“The reason that in my movies there are people who do not talk is because something deeply wounded them,” Kim has said. It is also a strategy that enables a director to more fully control the experience of overseas audiences – and Kim’s films play to larger crowds in Europe, apparently, than they do in Korea. Language’s absence changes the chemistry of cinema itself – dialog, when only spoken by secondary figures, comes closer to the role reserved in Greek drama for the chorus. Eyes & the corners of mouths becomes suddenly much more important – both players here are seriously poker-faced throughout, with only hints of smiles or alarm. There is one moment, early on, in which she screams, just a shriek, into a telephone, but that’s it right up until the final scene. Indeed, the one scene that patently falls flat is one in which he cries. Not that it’s not appropriate, narratively, but that it falls outside the palette the film has established.

So often I’ve seen American movies in which tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on everything except – it would seem – paying for a writer. 3-Iron is exquisitely plotted & choreographed – even its use of the edges of silence is well-written, as with a scene in an interrogation room at a police station in which the taciturn nature of the hero leads to a beating. The film’s use of cuts is such that – early on in particular – it’s not clear whether or not the characters are speaking, just not in the scenes on camera, any more than it is whether or not their relationship is carnal or platonic – I’ve read reviews that come to diametrically opposite conclusions. Beyond a certain point, tho (it comes when the heroine returns to one of the homes they’ve burgled & simply walks past the startled inhabitants to take a nap), the absence of language is so thoroughly written that this seemingly realist caper takes on all the trappings of a fable. 3-Iron is a film that is going to take a long time to fade from my imagination.