I suppose that around a year from now I’ll be putting together – be on here or just in my mind – a list of the best films of the decade, and when I do, Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING will most certainly find its way onto that list. Not just the best Asian film I’ve seen this decade (and that is saying a lot), it’s easily the most beautiful, serine and peaceful, a motion picture of absolute beauty and poetry that few other have matched. While I was already a fan of Kim’s output (such as THE ISLE and BAD GUY), SPRING amazed the hell out of me due to its positive, hopeful, Zen-like spirit, which very much went against the brutality of his earlier work (THE ISLE boasting the most infamous use of fish hooks in cinema history). As fine as those films are (and THE ISLE, which floored the hell out of me at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival, is another one of my favorites of the decade), they were not easy films to sit through, because they seemed to have a bitterness to them, an anger at the world and modern society that were brutal as you watch them, but once you spent time thinking about them (which you always do with Kim’s film) you began to see a different side. Boiled down to their essence, Kim makes films about our inability to express love to those around us, and despite the very extreme methods his characters go about making their feelings known, most of his films are love stories, in a way, albeit extremely fucked up ones. But SPRING proved to be his breakout feature because it not only featured none of the violence of the previous films, but it was something truly unique and visionary, a film that adhered to Buddhist philosophies that could be understood and appreciated by pretty much any audience. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up here, and when I got to see it in '04 I took a date who was aching to see 13 GOING ON 30 instead (she’d just turned 30), but who took a chance on my recommendation and it earned me points for having good taste in movies (the relationship didn’t work out, but she genuinely loved the movie). Later that year, Kim returned to Venice with 3-IRON, a further mediation on some of his past themes in a less violent, more audience-friendly package, and he won the Best Director award and another pickup from Sony Pictures Classics. Despite many raves (with some calling it Kim’s best film to date), I never got around to seeing it until just recently, and it’s proved to be an interesting film for me, proof once again that Kim is a filmmaker whose work I should continue to follow, no matter what.
One thing about 3-IRON that I like is that it’s got a tantalizing premise: A young man passes through Seoul dropping off leaflets for various restaurants, placing them in the doorways of apartment buildings and houses. When he returns the following day to see them unmoved, he knows that the tenants are not at home and he moves in. He’s no thief, however; he cleans the houses, does people’s laundry, fixes things, and replenishes the food he eats. If the people come home, he makes his way out quickly and finds the next place to stay, not really squatting per se, but just experiencing other people’s lives for a bit. But what’s interesting is that he does not seem to be destitute, as he rides a rather expensive motorcycle and is very quick-witted. Of course, he does end up getting involved in the life of one of the homeowners, and yes, it does blossom into a romance, but 3-IRON does not go into any of the directions you think that it would. While there are cases of mistaken identity and hiding from spouses, what Kim does with 3-IRON is what he did with SPRING… and make it a mediation on Buddhist philosophies, here about how we relate to one another in the space that we share. It’s a film about love and about relationships, yes, but it’s also about noticing, understanding, and utilizing all of the world that surrounds us, about how many of us don’t really see or appreciate everything that’s there. It’s about an abandonment of the material and practical world into one where those things that matter, those things that are truly essential, are simply those that appear right in front of us. I know this does not make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen the picture, but once you do, we’ll be on the same page.
What has made 3-IRON particularly endearing to me is how it’s stayed with me for so long after I’d seen it. My initial reaction was not as impressed as I would have wished it’d been, especially after being so knocked out by his other works, and I felt that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t "get it", but that Kim was trying things that simply didn’t work as best they should. But again, what 3-IRON is about is perception in how we truly understand things by seeing them only after we become one with our environments, and while I certainly didn’t have a massive awakening of any sort to make me see the light, 3-IRON just kept creeping its way into my consciousness again and again until it finally began to become clearer and more translucent (and I believe this is the first time I’ve used that word here, so you know this film is something special). Once this got into my head, I also began to see what a hopeful and romantic film it was, because what it really does say is that we don’t have to have anything in our lives except those around us in order to live and that everything else is simply irrelevant (like, say, other spouses). This also makes 3-IRON a bit of an original film, something that can’t be contained or described as anything other than an experience more so than as a movie, although it’s not a blockbuster-type of experience, by any means. It’s a beautiful piece of work, one that I think also speaks to this new world of streamlining, downsizing, and struggling to survive that we’re finding ourselves in. It places the emphasis on what’s important in life and is about finding love and peace in this world. It’s a hopeful film for hopeful times and I think more people need to see it.