Those who view recent Korean cinema as an endless Grand Guignol might be forgiven for thinking that 3-Iron is about a guy who uses a golf club as a weapon. Indeed, the banal title doesn’t lie. (Fore!) A cautionary tale for the Callaway set, 3-Iron is Kim Ki-duk’s bizarre, hypnotic follow-up to the sublime Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring. Silence is the key to Kim’s cinema: In his best-known films, Spring, Summer and The Isle, hardly a word is spoken, and Kim, a former painter, has a thousand strategies, beautiful or brutal, to grab the eye. The Isle featured a mute, baleful naiad at a secluded resort lake. In Kim’s latest, both the male and female leads keep mum for the duration. Taut even when ridiculous, with flashes of comedy, 3-Iron has less to offer than its predecessors, but at minimum it’s the playful exhaustion of a formal constraint.
A mysterious motorcyclist (Jae Hee) spends his days affixing delivery menus on door handles. It’s not a job, but a way of life: Repeating his rounds later, he looks for any undisturbed menus, which would indicate a temporarily uninhabited abode. Breaking in, he helps himself to the fridge, takes photos of himself grinning in front of family portraits, and generally seems like a simple sociopath. But before he leaves, he waters the plants, does the laundry, even scrubs sneakers clean. (Some New Yorkers at this point will undoubtedly start hanging menus on their doors and leaving them there.)
In one of his more luxurious squats, an abused wife (Lee Seung-yeon), still bearing bruises, silently spies on him as he snoops through her things. Subduing the returning husband with a few well-aimed drives, the interloper takes off, with the unquestioning wife in tow. The noiseless nomads set up house wherever they can, and for a while they inhabit a kind of portable paradise. These buoyant, often amusing scenes (catching them in bed, an incredulous boxer shouts, “And why are you wearing our pajamas?”) also carry a charge of loneliness. Kim captures the secret lives of “our” rooms when we’re gone, spaces that hum with our absence.
After the police catch up with the drop-in dyad, the film tumbles into serene incoherence. The incarcerated protag practices a movement-masking martial art, hiding behind his perplexed guard, but the conclusion, alas, recalls Ghost. The change in tone, from swiftly destabilizing drama to outright fantasy, feels less like Kim provocatively switching gears, and more like he’s painted himself into a corner.