3-Iron (빈집)

March 23, 2010

I’ll add this as a compliment to Nick’s post below. What I won’t do, however, is urge you to watch this movie “before you die”. I’m becoming increasingly unsettled by that choice of title, as if Nick knows something we don’t, or possibly that he maintains a subterranean menagerie of half-starved captives that he screens Korean movies to before dispatching them in the most heinous and infernal ways.

3-Iron (빈집)* was made by Kim Ki-Duk in 2004 and, due to the director’s established reputation, enjoyed both a comparatively wide release and significant international attention for a Korean film that wasn’t a) a trendy “Asian Extreme” horror film featuring girls with spooky long hair or b) a ballsy gangster/revenge-exploitation flick with intensity, plot twists and more intensity. The film was received in largely favourable terms by western critics and audiences alike, although the ever-divisive Kim retained some fierce detractors with 3-Iron, despite it being a far more gentle film than his notorious earlier works like The Isle (섬), Bad Guy (나쁜 남자) and Samaritan Girl (사마리아).

The story follows Tae-suk, a young loner with a peculiar habit of breaking into other people’s homes once he has established that they are temporarily unoccupied. Although undeniably a creepy bastard, Tae-suk doesn’t really steal anything from these homes (he does helps himself to food he finds there) but instead fixes broken appliances, does the laundry, cleans up, photographs himself in the houses and finally leaves them much as he found them. One day, whilst entering a particularly opulent house, Tae-suk is surprised to encounter Sun-hwa, a battered housewife who has been silently observing him. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa hit the road together and resume his habit of entering empty houses before encountering some inevitable difficulties and the involvement of the vengeful abusive husband and a bitter, violent cop.

The most notable feature of 3-Iron is the complete absence of any dialogue from the two main characters. With the exception of a loud scream early on, Sun-hwa utters a single line in the very closing moments of the film, whereas Tae-suk says nothing at all. Nick alludes to Kim’s use of silence in his films below and describes it as being occasionally crushing (in some films). Here, it works fairly well, although it does slow the 90 minute film down somewhat and is presented as a self-conscious device, with other characters shown demanding to know why Tae-suk and Sun-hwa refuse to speak or explain themselves. Thus it is left to the actors to communicate with a series of doe-eyed, mischievous glances and serene, melancholic frowns whilst they indulge their penchant for softly invading people’s homes. That mighty feature of Korean cinema, the great third act tonal shift, the cause of so much psychic whiplash and befuddlement amongst western viewers (“wait, isn’t this a comedy?”), is present too as 3-Iron turns into a rather surreal, fantasy tale for its climax. The shift here is an interesting one as it can be seen to heavily determine the final judgement on whether the film is a downbeat, pointless tale with dodgy gender politics or, in fact, a curious, enigmatic movie with dodgy gender politics. If the events in 3-Iron’s third act are supposed to be a mere dream sequence of one (or both?) characters, then it is the former. If Kim intends these events to be “really” happening, a shift from a relatively realistic film to an overtly fantastical one, then it is the latter.

Other aspects of Kim’s films that Nick touched on were also present in 3-Iron. Although neither a monk nor gangster pimp, Tae-suk is very much on the periphery of society. It is not clearly stated if the character is a vagrant or runaway but behind his serene, silent facade there lies a suggestion of hostility toward society that has driven the character to withdraw from it. The golf club he “liberates” from the home of Sun-hwa’s abusive husband, the titular 3-Iron, is (apparently) the least used club in golf, here metaphorically underscoring the character’s isolation from those around him. There are also aspects of anti-materialism and further hints at class warfare hostilities provided by the scowling antagonists. However, when it comes to watching Korean films, offset by the experience of actually living in Korea, it is the prevalent onscreen cliché of the violent, angry cop that ranks amongst the most unrealistic in Korean cinema itself.

3-Iron will either appear mesmerizing or meandering depending on one’s individual tastes and it ends on a rather unsatisfactory note, with the final fate of Sun-hwa being particularly unsettling. There are some interesting moments in the film and the shift into magical realism for the climactic scenes has a playful, if slightly disorientating, appeal. That damn ending, however, sees an otherwise light-hearted (by Kim Ki-Duk standards) and mischievous movie ultimately undone.

(* The Korean name for this film is 빈집 – “Bin Jip” which translates as “Empty House”)



  1. You rip on the title of my series?! Heh. Funny you should bring that up because I’ve been thinking it is a bit… hm… dramatic? Especially since I’ve spent a fair number of posts discussing movies that I personally don’t think will enrich your life (or death) to the degree which my title seems to imply.

    I suppose I could have called it TOP TEN KOREAN MOVIES OF ALL TIME. But this blog has recently been saturated with lists (admittedly, with positive results). I just should have gone with my first instinct for the series: A WHITE GUY DISCUSSES HIS OBSESSION WITH ASIAN CINEMA.

  2. And I resent the implication that I would dispatch anyone in ‘heinous and infernal ways’.

    …in fact I do everything in my power to ensure my murders and slayings are very humane.

  3. Ah, just giving as good as I get. (The reference in your Kim Ki-Duk piece about me being someone whom to defer to on matters of perverse and twisted sex.)

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