Directed by Kim Ki-duk
Tae-suk lives a quite, lonely life. Silently, he rides his motorbike through town delivering takeout menus to people’s front doors. Later, he returns to the houses that have not removed the menus. He delicately breaks into them and takes up a tentative residence. Understand, Tae-suk is not a thief or a transient degenerate. The truth is much more beautiful. As he resides in the homes of stranger he cleans and fixes their possessions. A pile of dirty laundry here, a broken pop gun there, he always leaves his temporary quarters better than they were when he arrived. He leaves nothing but a small calling card to alert the true residences that he was there. He takes nothing except for a self portrait. He sometimes gets caught but he usually escapes unnoticed. His is a life of nonexistence. Tae-suk is a perpetual shadow moving through the homes and lives of people he has never met before.
Sun-hwa also lives a quite, lonely life. But her life is one of domination and fear. She lives in an expensive home with an abusive husband. Try as she might to please him, he never seems to be satisfied. The first time we see her, the side of her face is covered in a gigantic swollen bruise. She gets a phone call from her husband where he tries to apologize but ends up chastising her and blaming her for his own actions. It is clear that she is stunningly beautiful, but stress and beatings have marred her complexion. She lives a life of internal exile controlled by submission and isolation.
Such are the lives of the main characters of Kim Ki-duk’s hypnotizing film 3-Iron. The original Korean title is 빈집, which literally translates to Empty House. A far superior title, Empty House creates an evocative image of both the main characters’ lives and they spaces that they inhabit. Though Sun-hwa lives in her own house, it is an empty one as she has no life of which to speak. This makes her the perfect foil of Tae-suk who lives in houses devoid of their owners but nevertheless enjoys a life of freedom. Here are two people who are missing something that only the other can provide. Is it any surprise that the two are destined to fall in love?
Tae-suk discovers Sun-hwa when he breaks into her house, mistaking it for being empty. The two exchange contemplative glances. Tae-suk flees from the house but later returns to find Sun-hwa being abused. Grabbing a 3-Iron golf club and a handful of golf balls, Tae-suk drives several high velocity slices into Sun-hwa’s husband’s chest. With him sprawled out on the ground, the two run away together. So begins one of the strangest and most moving relationships in recent years. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa never talk. In fact, Sun-hwa only has a couple of lines in the entire film. They don’t talk because they simply don’t have to. And so, where most romantic films cram themselves silly with flimsy dialogue, Kim Ki-duk was forced to fill his movie to the brim with fascinating plot developments. Tae-suk develops his golf swing (only to accidentally kill somebody in a passing car), Sun-hwa has to avoid her husband (who considers her to be a kind of property), and both of them have to escape from an apartment after accidentally getting caught by its owners (while sleeping and wearing their pajamas).
And so the film watches as Tae-suk and Sun-hwa go from house to house living off “the land.” Since what they do is technically illegal, they must avoid law enforcement agencies. But eventually their luck runs out when they break into an empty house only to find an elderly dead man. They clean his body and prepare to bury it. Sadly, they are caught by the man’s son and daughter-in-law. The police arrive and take Tae-suk and Sun-hwa into custody. Despite intense interrogations they are silent. Sun-hwa is returned to her husband and Tae-suk is accused of murdering the old man. After several failed attempts to woo Sun-hwa, her husband angrily pays off a policeman to let him abuse Tae-suk. What is his method of torture? And golf club and golf balls, of course. Tae-suk manages to fight through the pain and attack the corrupt police officer. This of course lands him in prison.
But it is while in prison that Tae-suk undergoes a kind of spiritual and physical transformation. He practices golf in his cell with pretend clubs and balls. He begins to practice the art of meditation. But most interestingly, he aggravates the prison guards by disappearing in his cell. He does this by hiding behind the door, above the door, and even in one instance staying behind the guard’s back so that he cannot be seen. Each instance ends with failure and a subsequent beating. But Tae-suk isn’t fooling around or seeking punishment. Instead, he is training himself in the art of invisibility. For once After Tae-suk is released from prison, he goes to live with Sun-hwa. The only problem is that she is still living with her jealous husband. So Tae-suk lives an invisible life literally behind Sun-hwa’s husband’s back as the two lovers are finally united again.
3-Iron is one of those rarest of love stories where the protagonists are not guided by the whims of pure, destined love. Their love is based in mutual needs and trust. They are not part of a movie guided by romance, but by love. It joins the ranks of some of the greatest love films ever made like Rainer Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987), and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Director Kim Ki-duk, one of Korea’s greatest modern directors, knows how to balance atmosphere, character development, and storytelling through the use of showing, not telling. Just watch his legendary Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) to see what he is capable of. A master of his craft, he filmed and edited 3-Iron in one month. And perhaps that was for the best. As it stands, 3-Iron is a lean, taut film that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It moves into our hearts without us even realizing it. In fact, it may just leave us in a better condition than we were when we first started to watch it.