3-Iron (빈집)

3-Iron (빈집)

It’s a tragic fact that auteur Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) is not particularly revered in his home country. Despite his phenomenal success at international film festivals, and his arguably unparalleled contribution in heightening the awareness of Korean cinema, he is disliked regardless. Some claim Kim Ki-duk is perverse due to the appearance of sexual and violent scenes, while others applaud him for highlighting sensitive socio-cultural issues.

With 3-Iron (빈집), the infamous director eschews such overtly confrontational content and crafts a delicate, poignant romance story. Tae-suk (Jae Hee (재희) is a poor drifter who posts adverts over doors as a day job. At night, he returns to the area and breaks in to an abode that appears vacant. Rather than vandalise, Tae-suk merely requires a place to bathe and sleep, in return performing household chores for the unaware owner(s) as payment. After entering a luxurious house, Tae-suk continues his usual routine; that is until beaten housewife Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon (이승연) catches him in the act. In the confrontations that follow, Tae-suk proves to Sun-hwa that he is a better man than her abusive husband (Kwon Hyeok-ho (권혁호), and the two run away together and form a relationship despite the odds.

Drifter Tae-suk is caught by abused house-wife Sun-hwa

Drifter Tae-suk is caught by abused house-wife Sun-hwa

The touching relationship between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa develops organically and respectfully, bonding together as they move from one empty house to the next. Astonishingly, neither protagonist talks during the entire development of their relationship. Instead, subtle moments of kindness and intimacy become powerful symbols of love and respect, and allow their love to bloom in an innocent, almost naive style. The acting by both leads is incredible, conveying their evolving personalities through only facial expressions and gestures. Jae Hee is particularly impressive as his eyes convey a power and intensity that belie his gentle mannerisms. Kwon Hyeok-ho, as Sun-hwa’s villainous husband, is also terrific as his character turns from doting husband to abusive misogynist with ease. But by far the most poignant, even magical, performance is due to Lee Seung-yeon who transforms from a passive victim into a strong, vibrant woman as she discovers her identity.

Tae-suk's (태숙) time in prison equips him with a new skill - invisibility

Tae-suk’s time in prison equips him with a new skill – invisibility

As with all Kim Ki-duk’s films, the socio-cultural analogies are rife and highly critical. With 3-Iron such debates are gendered, as the auteur probes the nature of contemporary relationships. Sun-hwa is a former model, and photographs of her beautiful face and naked body adorn many of the homes that Tae-suk visits. Kim Ki-duk employs postmodernist themes in representing and deconstructing Sun-hwa, as she exists merely as an image of perfection which is continually contrasted with her bruised, older reflection whenever she looks in the mirror. Sun-hwa is first and foremost a trophy wife; she married a rich businessman, as is common in Korea for people of equal status and success to wed. But it was a marriage built on image – both personal and societal – and hides the dark truth of abusive patriarchy as Sun-hwa is beaten and told to ‘be still’ as she is sexually assaulted.

Tae-suk functions as the antithesis of such archaic patriarchal ideology. While he may be a criminal, he is constantly respectful and gentle not only to Sun-hwa but also within any home he visits. Despite his etiquette and chivalry, Tae-suk is routinely beaten and insulted by those threatened by him, and even accused of murder. With his innocence proven, a corrupt sadistic policeman (Joo Jin-mo, 주진모) continues to beat Tae-suk simply to provoke a reaction, which results in a jail term. The representation of prison in 3-Iron is horrendous and inhumane, yet during this time Tae-suk trains to be truly invisible. Tae-suk conveys the ethics of an older, more humble Korea; he is kind, gentle and understands the value of manual labour. He is the epitome of chivalry despite his lower economic status, highlighting the lack of ethics and principles in contemporary Korean men who appear only concerned with image, money and violence.

Sun-hwa may be trapped in her marriage, but her heart belongs to the invisible Tae-suk

Sun-hwa may be trapped in her marriage, but her heart belongs to the invisible Tae-suk

Verdict:

3-Iron is an incredibly romantic, even dream-like film with a highly critical core of contemporary Korean masculinity. The Korean title ‘빈집’ actually means ‘vacant house’, denoting both the abodes Tae-suk frequents as well as the vacuum of ethics within modern men. Director Kim Ki-duk has crafted his critique within a powerful and passionate, yet fragile and endearing romance that offers a unique and refreshing tale on the tenderness of love.

★★★★☆

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7 comments

  1. 빈집 is one of my favourite, favourite films (I scored it 10/10 in the review on my blog). You make some interesting observations here – I can see your academic background 🙂 Are you at university now (i.e. still teaching? researching?)?

    1. I think 빈집 is an amazing film as well, by far his sweetest and most romantic film.
      Thanks for noticing the academic approach! I intended to continue in academia but decided against it (studying for another 3-4 years didn’t appeal at the time). Instead, I went to Korea to teach English and experience the wonderful people and culture, and see the entertainment industry in a closer fashion – best decision I ever made 🙂

      1. I have only watched 빈집 and 봄 여름… so far, and I don’t think I will be able to stomach all of Kim’s work. I do want to see 비몽 quite badly, but it’s difficult to get hold of (subbed in a DVD region 2 format at least).

        I get your hesitation about academia. I’m in and out of it myself, I am at uni now but part-time only (although the reason for that is purely because so I can work to fund myself). I have about another 2 1/2 years to go, we’ll see what happens then.

        Have been thinking of going to Korea (or Japan, or both) myself once I finish. I’m assuming to do TEFL? Glad to hear it was the “best decision” you ever made – that’s not something you hear people say that often! Keep enjoying. 🙂

      2. I’d definitely recommend going to Korea and/or Japan after you finish uni, especially after seeing your blog! Currently in Korea you need a 100 hour certificate in TESOL (which you can do online) and a university degree (B.A. minimum, higher means a better salary). Things change fast however, so in 2 1/2 years time the criteria may slightly change. I hope your studies go well!

      3. I’ve got a CELTA actually… and teaching experience (TEFL, high school and uni). But no proper teaching certification (which you can sometimes do without in Latin America, where I used to teach at an international school). I also don’t have a passport from an “English speaking country”, so I think to work in Asia I’ll either have get properly certified (since it’s only TEFL schools that care about passports, not international schools) or find a post-doc position (but I’m assuming those are as limited as everywhere else…).

        I have always found the passport requirement utterly ridiculous though…

      4. You have an incredible amount of teaching experience – in Korea you currently don’t need teaching certification, but if you do then more doors (and higher wages) are open. You’re right about the passport situation, having a passport from an “English speaking country” hardly guarantees a high level of English! But good luck, I hope everything works out how you wish.

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