Dir/scr/ed:Kim Ki-duk. S Kor-Jap. 2005. 90mins.
South Korean festival favourite Kim Ki-duk has two modes:the island film (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter' And Spring),and the urban film (Bad Guy; Samaria; 3-Iron). It lookedfor a while as if his city tales were a progression from the fishhooks andBuddhist isolation of his earlier island stories, as both Samaria and 3-Ironpremiered at European film fests in 2004.
Butwith The Bow, which opened Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Kim has returnedto his old floating-world themes. There's nothing wrong, of course, with adirector working though his obsessions - which include, for Kim, characters whospeak little or not at all, Buddhist icons, primary colours, fishermen, secretskept behind doors and in drawers, and the Americanisation of Korean youthculture.
Butafter the new dramatic ground that Kim broke with his powerful 3-Iron,finding these old familiar buttons pressed so insistently in his latest feelslike treading water.
Whichis not to say that this story of an old man and his promised child bride lacksgrace or charm. Kim is a master of the minimalist cinematic narrative, and onone level The Bow traces a satisfying and evocative arc, fromcontentment through discord to resolution. But it also has something a littletoo pat about it.
Likethe westernised, orchestrated versions of Kang Eun-il's traditional Koreanfiddle music that provide the soundtrack, The Bow is a little toodressed for export, and winks a little too coyly at Kim's cineaste fanbaseoutside of Korea - at one point literally so, when his heroine puts twofishhooks in her mouth, in a rather gratuitous reference to the two mostinfamous scenes from The Isle.
3-Iron enjoyed small butresilient runs in most of the territories where it has been released, though itfailed to match the performance of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter' AndSpring; one suspects, though, that The Bow may struggle to findbuyers in the range of territories covered by those two titles.
Asin The Isle, The Bow takes place in a fishermen's retreat -though in this case it's not a series of floating huts on a lake but a rusting,gaily painted steamer bobbing in some unspecified location off the Koreancoast. The unnamed captain of this engine-less ship is a leather-tanned60-year-old man (Jeon Sung-hwan); he lives with a 16-year-old girl (HanYeo-reum, last seen in Samaria) who he found when she was six' and who,since then, has always lived on the boat. He plans to marry her when she's 17,and in order to hasten the date, cheats by crossing weeks at a time off thecalendar.
Thefishermen are drawn to the docile, attractive girl; but the old man keeps themat bay by firing warning arrows from the bridge whenever they take liberties.The arrival of a sensitive young college student (Seo Ji-seok), and the crushthe mute young girl develops for him, hastens the final crisis.
Thefilm's rich symbolic texture - which may be partly lost on Western audiences -centres on the bow itself, which is a weapon, but also a musical instrument anddivination tool (the old man tells fortunes by getting his young assistant togo on the swing that dangles over the side of the ship, then shooting arrowspast her at a Buddha painted on the hull - not the most conventional method,but extremely picturesque).
Kim'sinterest in the ritual trappings of Korean culture come through here and in thetraditional wedding clothes that are hoarded and finally worn in one of thefinal scenes; but there are some Freudian symbolic fusillades as well (menstrualblood on white linen, the arrow as phallus, and so on), plus a couple ofplot-less bridging scenes showing the young girl alone on the boat that act aslittle more than pretty fillers.
ThoughThe Bow is ravishingly shot, playing up the contrast between the wornand faded textures and colours of this floating scrapheap and the young girl'sbody as it flowers into womanhood, this is not enough to give the film thedepth or resonance of Kim's best work. And the use of oniric symbolism ratherthan dramatic logic to wrap the story feels like a bit of cop-out.
Butthe director has to be admired for his brisk production rate - with two majorfestival entries last year, it wouldn't be a surprise if the next one were doneand dusted in time for Venice.
Prod cos: Happinet Pics, Kim Ki-duk Film
Int'l sales: Cineclick Asia
Exec prods: Michio Suzuki,Fumiaki Ikeda
Prod: Kim Ki-duk
Cine: Jang Seung-baek
Prod des: Kim Hyeon-ju
Mus: Kang Eun-il
Main cast: Jeon Sung-hwan, HanYeo-reum, Seo Ji-seok