If Goldilocks and the Three Bears was a ghost story – and Goldilocks played a lot of golf – you’d have something akin to 3-Iron, a Korean film about a young man who sneaks into homes while the owners are on vacation.
We never quite learn the reason why Tae-suk (Hyun-kyoon Lee) does this. He’s certainly not a thief. If anything, he takes care of the properties he visits, repairing appliances, watering plants, doing laundry. If all goes well, the owners return with the sense that a benevolent spirit came by to tidy things up.
Tae-suk’s routine is disrupted when he breaks into one house, makes himself comfortable and only hours later realizes that a young woman has been quietly watching him the whole time. This is Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee), the abused wife of the domineering, golf-obsessed owner of the home. The two form a silent bond, and when Sun-hwa’s husband (Hyuk-ho Kwon) returns enraged, she escapes with Tae-suk and joins him in his itinerant lifestyle.
Evanescence is the movie’s most distinguishing characteristic.
I wasn’t kidding about that silent bond. The leads never speak to each other; in fact, only Sun-hwa gets any lines at all, and they’re at the very end of the film. And so in addition to fables and ghost stories, 3-Iron also evokes the pantomime of the silent cinema.
That’s a lot for any movie to juggle, and writer-director Kim Ki-duk does an admirable job of managing a coherent tone. After a fairly realistic opening, which details Tae-suk’s invasive methods, the movie gradually adopts a more poetic mood, so that the middle section – of Tae-suk and Sun-hwa creating a traveling domestic ritual – recalls the sweet courtship of a Charlie Chaplin short. We move further from reality in the final section, after one of their stays goes awry and Tae-suk lands in jail. He becomes even more ghostly there, until we reach a climax in which we wonder if Tae-suk ever existed at all.
If this sort of evanescence is the movie’s most distinguishing characteristic, it’s also what makes it feel as if the picture is constantly slipping through your hands. Despite its plaintiveness and emotionality, I found it hard to become attached to 3-Iron. It has the air of a fable, but doesn’t leave the same sort of lasting impression.