No director makes films as tidy or conveys his philosophy of the world with so little as Kim Ki-duk, and yet I can’t think of another living filmmaker whose work consistently rubs me the wrong way. With the possible exception of last year’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, in which Kim’s powerfully cyclical aesthetic evokes a self-contained universe that essentially revolves around itself, his films feel too much like sermons, at once ravishing to behold but too self-satisfying and didactic to fully absorb. From his breakout hit The Isle to the noxious Samaria (and 2001’s Bad Guy, released in the United States only recently), it’s as if his solemn meditations on sexuality and spirituality are intended as Zen study guides of the Eastern world for Western audiences.
The story of a silent menu delivery guy who sneaks into people’s homes and uses their stuff but doesn’t take anything, 3-Iron (or Zen and the Art of Unlawful Entry) more or less compacts themes from The Isle (or Zen and the Art of Catching Fish…and Women) and the questionable Samaria (or Zen and the Art of the Madonna/Whore). Tae-suk (Jae Hee) leaves a rigged item in all the homes he enters, indicative of a need to make a spiritual impression on someone’s life. In Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon)—a rich bastard’s battered wife who joins Tae-suk on the road after the young man nearly kills her husband with a series of fast-flying golf balls—he seems to find that someone, though it’s questionable if Tae-suk’s impression on Sun-hwa is necessarily spiritual. Kim has a habit of romanticizing pain (and rape) and he portrays Sun-hwa as a hurt puppy that needs saving; if she scarcely exists, that’s because she’s just there to flatter Tae-suk’s higher learning.
The title of the film refers to the three-iron Tae-Suk steals from Sun-hwa’s husband and uses both as a meditation stick and tool for retribution, in essence a symbol for the film’s Christo-Buddhist burden, an interesting but problematic synthesis of spiritual transcendence and violence. Together Tae-suk and Sun-hwa break into people’s homes, sleep in their beds, use their tea sets, and say precious nothing to each other—this (non-)method of communication isn’t profound, just cute and gimmicky. After Tae-suk—major spoilers ahead (you’ve been warned!)—lands in jail and Sun-hwa returns to her husband, they simultaneously engage in a search for higher consciousness: She revisits their old haunts, and after a prison guard tells the sneaky Tae-suk to “take care of that shadow,” the young man graduates from breaking into empty homes to breaking out of his human vessel.
There’s something about the film’s godly lead character that reeks of arrogance (he’s superior to other thieves, because instead of taking something physical from people’s homes, he leaves would-be spiritual imprints behind), but more troublesome is the film’s final scene, in which Sun-hwa happily accepts the man that beats her because Tae-suk is also there with her (though it’s entirely possible that Tae-suk may be dead and is only there in spirit). When Sun-haw says “I love you” to the shape-shifting Tae-suk (not her husband, as the older man seems to think), you get the impression that that’s all the her husband needed to hear in order to stop hitting her. Once again, Kim proves that the attention he pays to the spirit world and how it interacts with the real world is obsessive and alluring on the surface, but his view of flesh-and-blood women and victimhood still feels head-fucked.