The oddly mystical, utterly material 3-Iron (Bin-jip) opens with a set of images and sounds almost too close to identify. But within seconds, hearing a slow and steady thwack-thwack-thwack, you realize that you’re seeing a golf ball hit a grabbing net. Whacked from a tee just a yard or so away, the ball slams into the net, just behind which stands a classically Western, marble figure, also too close, but also removed, a sign of artifice, a measure of abstract, extra-pale, unliving beauty.
With this jarring image, Kim Ki-duk’s film opens up its exploration of the complex relations between spiritual and physical realms, art and experience, time and, in a peculiar way, space. The golf ball you see first will come back again — repeatedly in various situations, but also specifically in that situation, when Tae-suk (Jae Hee) is hitting balls in a backyard, seeking to distract wealthy homeowner Min-gyu (Gweon Hyeok-ho). At the moment, he’s beating his wife Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), and indeed, he stops when he hears the thwack-thwack-thwack.
But before you get back to this moment, circumstances rounded, 3-Iron reveals something of Tae-suk’s trajectory. A black-vested pretty boy on a motorbike, he leaves restaurant menus on doorknobs for a living, and sneaks into unattended homes as a sort of avocation. The denizens are off on vacation or a business trip, signaled by the fact that more than one menu hang from the door, and Tae-suk takes this emptiness as an invitation to enter and investigate. His ritual at each place is precise and also relaxed: he goes through belongings, borrows clothes, does laundry by hand, watches tv, waters plants, fixes clocks and scales. He also takes photos of himself on his digital camera, keeping mementos of time spent and spaces borrowed.
The process is rife with unresolved contradictions. At once a means to avoid conventional notions of commitment and responsibility, Tae-suk’s seeming anti-lifestyle is also a form of stealing. Though he doesn’t “take anything” except the food he eats or tea he drinks, the ease with which he insinuates himself into other people’s private spaces is unnerving, and leaves his victims with a sense of violation. His lingering “effect” is occasionally manifest in physical form — a boxer and his wife discovers him in their bed and the boxer beats him, a child returning from vacation finds the gun he’s repaired, and points it at his mother — but such disruptions are less a matter of blame than seeming revelation. Tae-suk’s visit has reordered their space, such that imminent events become visible.
Tae-suk is consistently fascinated by visual representations — photos, décor, other emblems of self. When he comes into Sun-hwa’s home, she seems to be everywhere: photos of her adorn walls and appear in books (and later, in a photographer’s apartment, she appears again as ornament, in a couple of cases cut up and reassembled, collage-style, beautifully framed and lit, that is, thoroughly marked as Art). Tae-suk takes a photo book into the bathtub with him, then irons the pages flat and dry after, wearing Min-gyu’s silk robe.
As at ease as always with his invasion, Tae-suk is startled to learn — as you know from his first moment in the house — that Sun-hwa has been watching him, looking through windows and doorframes, watching him hit golf balls, watch tv, masturbate to her images. Her bruised face and bloodied, cracked lip indicate that her husband’s beating on his arrival home is not a first; but Tae-suk’s decision to “save” her is the first time he “steals” in order to protect someone else. (He also slams a few golf balls into Min-gyu before he and Sun-hwa ride off on his bike, an assault that the husband will not forget and will repay, brutally.)
The romance that develops between Sun-hwa and Tae-suk is mostly silent, which makes it seem at once precious and fully accessible. She adopts his routine, breaking and entering, drinking liquor, even posing with him in photos. Together they live as pseudo ghosts, unmoored to any address or community, losing and also finding themselves in the shadows of others. Among their several shared rituals is Tae-suk hitting a golf ball — he drills a hole in it, fastens a cable through it, ties it to a tree, and whacks it, so that each hit only spins it furiously around the tree. After watching this a few times, Sun-hwa makes up a part for herself: she stands in front of the ball, either daring him to hit it and chance hitting her, or warning him not to hit it, and by chance doing damage in some other way. Though he is confident in his makeshift device, Sun-hwa’s very presence in these moments — so still and sure that she’s nearly spectral — suggests an affinity between trust and certainty, hope and self-assertion.
When at last they come on a home where the occupant has died rather than gone off for a week or so, they’re startled, unsure what to do. Rituals of several sorts seem available: they decide to bury the old man with traditional respect and form, apparently quite the opposite of his lonely existence. When the dead man’s family comes pounding at the door (apparently wholly surprising the by now “otherworldly” Sun-hwa and Tae-suk), they’re interrogated by a couple of cops, including old-school Inspector Cho (Jin-mo Ju), who presumes Tae-suk’s guilt and returns Sun-hwa, as property, to her husband. From here, he romance turns quite fantastic, a function of transcendence, shadows, and will.
3-Iron sometimes posits physical abuse and emotional force as see-saw ends of one continuum of experience (not a little bit of a joke on the ways that people like to talk about golf, actually, as a head game and test of honed athletic skills). Their coming together is most acutely realized in the film’s last 20 minutes or so, when an imprisoned Tae-suk taunts his easily rattled jailer (Jeong-ho Choi) by seeming invisible in his cell and Sun-hwa eludes her husband’s bullying and possessiveness by seeming to succumb to his will. Both lovers, meantime, are coming closer to one another. While the movie, being a movie, makes their connection visible, this dimension is its least provocative, least realistic expression.