The last two films of Korean director Ki-duk Kim to be released in the UK – The Isle and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring – were both set beside lakes, the calming waters creating a hypnotic, meditative atmospheres. Conversely, 3-Iron is set on the streets of bustling, unnamed city but still exudes a similar dreamlike quality.
Seung-yeon Lee play Sun-hwa, a golf-loving young man who moves from house to house, breaking in when he knows the residents are away and setting up home for the night. He steals nothing, cleans up behind himself and does odd spots of DIY, then moves on in the morning. One day he enters a house he believes to be empty but encounters a girl called Tae-suk (Hyun-kyoon Lee), who has been beaten by her husband. It’s love at first sight for the pair, and Sun-hwa sets about liberating her from her abusive spouse.
3-Iron is as near to a silent film as you’re likely to see these days. Sun-hwa never speaks, while Tae-suk has only two lines, and their ‘romance’ is conducted entirely wordlessly. It takes nothing more than a look for Tae-suk to realise that Sun-hwa will return to the house to take her away from her husband – although not before he unleashes a bit of golf ball vengeance upon him. Tae-suk then slots into Sun-hwa’s lifestyle silently, but the discovery of a dead body in one apartment results in a sudden end to their happy existence.
Restraint is the key word here; Ki-duk Kim keeps everything, from flashes of humour to the blossoming love story, subtle and understated. Even the violence is kept in check– there are some nasty bits, but nothing compared to the notorious fish-hook scenes in The Isle. We learn almost nothing about any character – Tae-suk seems to be a model, but we only know that from the photos of her in her house, while a police interrogation reveals that Sun-hwa is a university graduate. But that’s pretty much it.
And as the film develops, the very reality of what we are watching is cast into doubt. Holed up in a tiny jail cell on suspicion of kidnap, Sun-hwa takes to taunting his guard by hiding whenever he enters the cell, ultimately training himself to walk silently behind his nemesis and fight him off with an invisible golf club. The last section of the film has Sun-hwa moving like a ghost, revisiting the places that Tae-suk has been, before he is reunited with her in an unexpected, haunting finale. What does it all mean? Who knows? But what could have easily been stylish and clever but emotionally empty emerges as a surprisingly moving tale. Definitely the year’s best golf-themed existential romance.