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.
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.
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.
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.