Maccewill Yip addresses themes of voyeurism, invisibility, and the need to repair in his ten-years-later look at Ki-duk Kim’s South Korean drama 3-Iron.

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There is something enigmatic about a quiet or silent character. It automatically create a mystery about which we question why he or she hardly or never speaks. Sometimes we get an explanation early in the film, like Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, or Dwayne fromLittle Miss Sunshine. Sometimes it is not until later, or the end, of the film when we make the discovery, as with Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then there are those that never speak at all (Harpo of Marx Brothers films, Silent Bob of Kevin Smith’s). 3-Iron, which was recommended to me by a friend years ago when we ourselves were discussing the trope, consists of two such characters.

The film starts with a man named Tae-suk riding through a neighborhood on his motorcycle, putting up flyers advertising a random restaurant. He then rides into another part of town, where he enters an apartment building, the floors and steps strewn with other flyers. He stops at one door, seeing that there’s still a flyer on the door, and starts to pick it open, and it is from here we begin to get an idea of this character. When he breaks in, he checks the answering machine to confirm that the residents of the flat is on vacation. Tae-suk then proceeds to eat the food, use the bathroom, and sleep in the bed of the flat. However, during his brief occupancy, he would clean the dirty clothes that are left around and fix whatever he finds that is broken. He would take selfies of himself in these homes. Usually he leaves right before the residents return. Throughout the whole process, we notice that he never speaks one word.

We get that this is something that he is used to, which probably explains why when we see him breaking into another home, he doesn’t notice the battered housewife, Sun-wha, hiding silently at the corner. Unknowingly being followed and watched by Sun-wha, Tae-suk goes about his regular routine as well as watering a plant and using the golf clubs with a practice net in the backyard. It isn’t until an embarrassing situation occurs when he finally notices her. They don’t speak, her bruised face saying all that needs to be said. Tae-suk leaves, but after several blocks down the road he decides to returns to find Sun-wha crying in the tub. He goes to the closet to find clothes for her and lay it on the floor outside the bathroom, then plays music to get her attention. She goes out, dresses up, and sits at the couch when a golf ball comes at her from around a corner. She passes it back, and this small game continues until the husband, Min-gyu, returns. Tae-suk hides outside, looking in as he sees Min-gyu first arguing, then tries to force himself on Sun-wha. Enraged, Tae-suk gets the husband’s attention by hitting balls at the practice net outside. When Min-gyu goes outside, Tae-suk begins hitting the golf balls at him. As Min-gyu lays down wheezing in pain, Sun-wha leaves and joins Tae-suk on his bike and on his little adventures.

Sun-wha starts by helping Tae-suk hang his fliers, following him as he breaks into the different homes. However, she later joins him in his habits: laundry, cooking, and even the taking of selfies. In a couple of places, this goes without a hitch, but there are a couple of times they get caught. The first time occurs at the home of a boxer and his wife, who returns to find Tae-suk and Sun-wha in their bed. The boxer proceeds to beat Tae-suk before they manage to escape. The second time is when they find a dead body of an old man in a flat. They find an emergency phone number, only to find that, ironically, the family is on vacation. The two decide to wrap the body up according to traditional Korean rituals and bury the body. However, the children of the dead man call back to see why they got a call from his place. When the children don’t get a response, they go to his place to check on them, only to find the two intruders in the flat and their father missing. The police are called and the couple is taken into custody. Sun-wha is sent back to her husband, while Tae-suk is jailed; but not until Min-gyu gets a little revenge by bribing the cops to allow him to exact the same pain he endured through golf balls.

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During his incarceration, Tae-suk decides to teach himself how to be unseen, particularly by silently hiding behind the prison guard; but he is found almost every time and gets beaten for his troubles. However, after each time he just learns from his mistakes until he can be sensed, but not seen. During this time, Sun-wha waits for Tae-suk to get out, which her husband is well aware of and waits as well, hoping to hurt Tae-suk some more if he tries. When Tae-suk sentence is up and he is released, he first exacts revenge on the police officer that had done him wrong when he got arrested. He then visits some of the homes he had been in with Sun-wha before he finally goes to her own home. Min-gyu gets up to look around when he sensed something, but couldn’t find anything or anyone. He goes back to bed and sleeps, but then Sun-wha gets up and tries to find Tae-suk, finally seeing him behind her when she looks into a mirror. We then see the husband following her, but Tae-suk is gone before Min-gyu can catch her. He is a little angry, until she speaks for the first time: “I love you.” This completely disarms Min-gyu and he embraces her, not knowing that right behind him, she is kissing Tae-suk. The following morning, We see Sun-wha preparing a meal, then calling out “Breakfast is ready!” We see the husband walking towards the dining table, not knowing that Tae-suk is right behind him. While Min-gyu is sitting down and enjoying his meal, he is oblivious that Tae-suk is enjoying the same meal. When Min-gyu heads to work, there is a kind of game of hide-and-seek, before Sun-wha backs into Tae-suk, turns around and embrace him, the last shot showing that they are now on a scale that reads zero.

It is interesting to see the silent interactions between Tae-suk and Sun-wha. For Tae-suk, he pretty much never speak at all in the film, except in a moment when he supposedly spoke to a cop about the location of the old man’s body, but that happens off camera. Most characters I’ve see that never utter one word in the entirety of the film are usually comedic, such as Silent Bob, Mr. Bean, and Monsieur Hulot, and like those people, we never get an explanation story-wise of why Tae-suk doesn’t speak. Usually in genres like dramas, a character speak at some profound moment, usually towards the end of the film. Sun-wha doesn’t speak at all until the two lines summarized earlier, but her words end up being secretively subversive. The only silent moment I can think of in a similar vein is in Mel Brooks’Silent Movie, a movie about Brooks’ character trying to make a silent movie while the movie itself is a silent movie. While Brooks is casting, one person he calls up is the famous mime, Marcel Marceau. Mr. Marceau ironically delivers the only word of dialogue you hear in the entire film: “Non!” Having no dialogue between Tae-suk and Sun-wha magnifies every little mannerism more. Also, certain sounds takes on more emphasis, like the one where Sun-wha closes the door on Min-gyu. The silence also forces the director to become creative with conveying certain ideas and themes without the dialogue.

One of the themes of the film is that of repair. Through each home, Tae-suk repairs something: a toy gun, a bathroom scale, a wall clock, a CD player, and a table fan. In a way, he is doing the same when he helps Sun-wha by attacking her abusive husband and taking her away. It is interesting to note that the only place that Tae-suk didn’t make any repairs was in a home that seems to have the only happily married couple in the film. As Sun-wha follows Tae-suk, she does something similar, but in a different way. It is hinted that she had a history as a model. Her image was found in a nude photography book in her home, and coincidentally on the wall of one of the flats she helps break into. She later takes this image and cuts it up and glues it back together to look like one of those toy slide-puzzle. Although it looks like she is destroying more than repairing, it seems that what she is trying to do is fix the image to match how she feels at that moment, a change of perspective. This can be seen when she tweaks with the bathroom scale, so that it now reads zero only when both her and Tae-suk stands on it.

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That scale brings up another theme: being invisible. Obviously, we can point to Tae-suk, from living in the temporarily empty homes to his later practice in prison to learn to be unseen. However, we can interpret this for broken things as well. Sometimes, once something is damaged, we don’t pay attention to it anymore. This is what happens to Sun-wha, who when we first see her onscreen is bruised from her husband. Tae-suk doesn’t see her following him as he makes use of what’s in her home, even when she is occasionally in his line of sight. It isn’t until he finds the nude photography book and is masturbating to the image of her before she was abused that he turns around and embarrassingly finds her staring at him. As the movie continues, the only one she allows to really see her is Tae-suk, starting from when he was taking a selfie of himself at another flat and her stepping into his digital camera’s viewfinder. He in turn does the same once he leaves prison and arrives at her home. Ultimately by the end, they want to be invisible to the all the world except for each other, as shown on that scale as it reads zero, and the quote at the end: “It is hard to tell the world we live in is either reality or dream.”

However, on top of the theme of being invisible is the contradictory one on voyeurism. Breaking into the different homes, Tae-suk gets to look into the lives of those who live there. When he breaks into Sun-wha’s house, the role is somewhat reversed and, although he glimpse into her life from what’s in her home, she is the one watching without him knowing, up to the point of the moment mentioned earlier of Tae-suk masturbating to her image. The nude photograph itself is voyeuristic, although Sun-wha may have earlier agreed to have it taken. It is probably why when she sees it in another flat, she does what she feels is needed to take control and cut the image to be re-arranged in a shattered visage. Another time Sun-wha has this moment of looking in, besides when she helps break into the homes, is when she was in police custody with Tae-suk. When she is taken out of the interrogation room to be returned to Min-gyu, she looks from the other side of the two-way mirror to see a cop roughly question Tae-suk. Which brings us back to Tae-suk, starting from when he takes control again from his prison cell. There is the one opening in the cell door where the guard can look into Tae-suk, but as Tae-suk serves his sentence, he learns to be unseen so that it forces the guard into his cell. There, Tae-suk can secretly watch the guard while hiding behind him. When he is finally freed, the imagery increases as the camera takes on Tae-suk’s POV without showing him. When Tae-suk goes to the homes he had been with Sun-wha, he does things that emphasize how blind the tenants are. At one home, he re-arranges the couch without being seen by the housewife cleaning just outside. In another, he secretly watches a couple before taking the image of Sun-wha and turning off the lights. In the third, he tapes the eyes on a giant poster of the boxer, showing him blind to Tae-suk’s presence. Finally, during the breakfast scene at Sun-wha’s home, he is watching her and her husband eating breakfast, without Min-gyu knowing that Tae-suk is secretly enjoying the meal with them.

I chose to review this movie for the same reason I choose most of the films I write about in this blog, as an excuse to screen a film I’ve been meaning to re-watch. I hadn’t done that with this film since I first watched it years ago when my friend recommended it to me. Does it still hold up? Yes, it does. It’s been so long that I had forgotten certain details, such as how Tae-suk uses the flyers to find which homes to break into. There are also the little moments of acting that I loved, such as when Sun-wha first enters the frame when she joins in the selfie, or when she lovingly moves her foot towards Tae-suk’s. On top of that, I mostly like quiet films, those that are mainly considered art-house. I grew up with enough loud action films, and although I still love many of them, it is usually the meditative ones like this, Two-Lane Blacktop, Revanche and, one I previously reviewed, Last Life in the Universe, that goes into my lists of favorites.

Other Notes:

– The title, 3-Iron, is a focus on the club used throughout the film, which is apparently one of the hardest one to use in golf. Probably a parallel to the precarious menage a trois between Min-gyu, Sun-wha and Tae-suk. Also interesting to note that when picking locks to people’s homes, Tae-suk uses three picks, whereas in real lock-picking you would use just two.

– I wonder how Tae-suk and Sun-wha got out of the situation when they got caught by the boxer and his wife.

– The opening logo of the studio/production company is as cheesy as their name: happiness + networking = Happinet Pictures.

– Although it has a decent poster, it pretty much spoils the end of the film.

– The part when they call the children of the old dead man seems like one of those old Greek tragedies where trying to do good leads to one’s downfall.

– The opening score reminds me of Satie’s “Gymnopedie.”

– The song Tae-suk always plays from his CD is “Gafsa” by Natacha Atlas. Reading the translation of the lyrics seems to echo some of the themes of the film:

The winds of love suddenly began blowing in my head

Showing me the peace of my beloved

You say “return my precious, rise above the separation while you are a stranger.”

The impatience of my imagination wandered

And my highest aspiration is to be happy

You emerged from the highest tower

And said a strange word

Return my love

I don’t have any destiny for me in this world

You are my love but you cannot be suitable for me

Oh night

Oh my eye

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