His fine-boned face belies his black leather vest, but Tae-suk enjoys one fringe lifestyle. The young Korean exploits his job hanging ads on doorknobs to learn who's away from home. Then he moves in. He fixes balky household machines (clocks, scales), photographs his head obtruding on family portraits, wears his unwitting hosts' pajamas, eats their food, hand-launders some clothes. Then Tae-suk (played by Jae Hee) moves on, sometimes just before the legal occupants return.
But one such house is not, technically, empty. It's inhabited by the bruised shell of a young woman named Sun-Hwa (Lee Seng-yeon), whose raging businessman husband hits her. Discovering Tae-suk in her home, at first she merely observes him. When finally he sees her he splits, but impulsively returns to witness the husband's latest abuse, whereupon he assaults the man with golf balls launched from the head of the householder's own 3-iron. Sun-Hwa calmly climbs onto Tae-suk's motorcycle, thus beginning act two of 3-Iron, a strange, memorable and moving film that's part romance and part Buddhist primer, with touches of action flick worked in for good measure.
Kim's 11th feature is both rather similar to and utterly unlike his recent art-house favorite Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... Spring, a film set entirely at the waterlocked rural hut of a Buddhist monk. Like it, 3-Iron has little dialogue: Tae-suk never says a word, Sun-Hwa's only vocalization is a scream, and it's surely significant that speech in the film is largely reserved for characters in anger or pain. Contrapuntally, 3-Iron is set in Spring's off-screen urban "other place," a hard world where bad things happen. Still, in Kim's new vision it's a place where growth and healing can take place, too.
Tae-Suk's silence and passivity summon the insecurities of others. But this charismatic Eastern James Dean at first grasps only half the zen picture. He's full of an anger that he takes out on hapless golf balls; indeed, 3-Iron imagines the sinister face of golf in a way even Reservoir Dogs fans might enjoy.
But not to mislead: Kim doesn't relish or condone violence. Rather, the film is largely about transcending it, a state Tae-suk arrives at, with Sun-Hwa's help, after one horrific accident and a bad scrape into which their gypsy lifestyle leads them.
Is 3-Iron, with its semi-magical denouement, "unrealistic"? Of course! I can already see the Yankee remake, transplanted to L.A., with Heath Ledger, Katie Holmes, a lot more talking and a lot less Buddhism. But Kim's point, too, transcends. His film is about the power of imagination, and stylistically, about the mysterious way Sun-Hwa steps in front of Tae-suk's practice swings to halt them -- and about what happens the one time she doesn't. In Korean, with subtitles.