Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Film: Bin-Jip (3-Iron)
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m not someone who watches a lot of romances. In today’s world of films, “romance” tends to mean romantic comedy, and based on the last however many years, romantic comedy tends to mean predictable and stupid. I’m even less likely to rush out and purchase a romantic film. So it comes as something of a surprise and out of character that I went out and purchased a copy of Bin-Jip (3-Iron) shortly after watching it the first time. Admittedly, I purchased it from a Blockbuster going out of business, but nonetheless, I wanted a copy after seeing it.

Kim Ki-duk’s film is an unusual one, to say the least. The main protagonist, Tae-suk (Hyun-kyoon Lee) is a silent man who spends his day putting up flyers for restaurants on the front doors of houses and apartments. Later, he returns to neighborhoods he has canvassed and looks for houses that still hold the flyer. When he finds one, he breaks in and lives there for a couple of days, eating the occupants’ food and sleeping in their beds. He repays their unwitting and unplanned hospitality by doing small things around the house for them. He fixes small appliances, waters the plants, and does their laundry.

Things change when he breaks into a large mansion. Tae-suk believes he is alone, but he is not; he is being observed by the woman of the house, Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee). Sun-hwa shows evidence of having been beaten—her face is bruised and her lip is cut. After a day or so, she finally (and silently) confronts Tae-suk. He leaves, but thinks better of it and returns, only to observe her being beaten and humiliated by her husband, Min-gyu (Hyuk-ho Kwan). Rather than specifically intrude on the scene, Tae-suk attracts the man’s attention by using his golf clubs in the back yard. When Min-gyu goes to confront him, Tae-suk turns and starts hitting golf balls into the man with his 3-iron. He leaves, and Sun-hwa follows him, and the two ride off together.

Their life together settles into a familiar and happy rhythm. They follow his daily life, breaking and entering, but taking nothing. Things change initially for them when they are discovered by one couple. Things change again when they find the owner of a house dead on his floor. Not knowing what to do, Tae-suk and Sun-hwa proceed to bury the man with a great amount of respect, but are confronted by the man’s daughter and son-in-law, and are arrested. Tae-guk is charged with murder, kidnapping, breaking and entering, and several other crimes.

If the film wasn’t weird up to this point, here is where it takes a turn for the very bizarre. In prison, Tae-guk develops a skill of essentially becoming a ghost. While still a flesh-and-blood creature, he slowly learns to hide in plain sight, becoming undetectable unless he wishes to be seen. In most respects, he becomes a creature of almost pure spirit. He uses this ability to win his freedom, and returns to Sun-hwa and her husband for a most unusual confrontation.

There are aspects of this film that I find difficult to parse out into something meaningful. Tae-suk, for instance, steals Min-gyu’s 3-iron and a golf ball. He puts a piece of wire through the golf ball and ties it around trees. He then spends a great deal of time just hitting that golf ball. Sun-hwa sometimes stands in front of him when he does this, preventing him from swinging the club. This almost has the feeling of a courtship ritual, like she is offering herself to him. This occurs until one day when the ball goes shooting off the wire and strikes a young woman in a car, quite possibly killing her. After this, Tae-suk stops swinging the club, and the two consummate their relationship.

The most interesting part of the film is something I have only lightly touched on. These characters don’t talk. Sun-hwa speaks only a couple of lines at the end of the film and Tae-suk never speaks at all. Their courtship, romance, and relationship is entirely silent, almost as if they are connected at a deeper level mentally and emotionally rather than through mere physical communication. It’s surprising effective and moving to see these characters find each other in this way and make this strong bond with each other without dialogue getting in the way.

For a romantic film, the sudden bursts of violence are shocking. They are also effective and nicely used. The moments of violence are effective for the simple reason that they are so basic. The violence happens naturally, but often with little warning.

This is a beautiful film, one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, and few shots compare with the power of the final shot of the film. It’s uplifting and gorgeous, and remains one of my favorite memories in the film.

In short, this is a tremendous and beautiful film that demands not only to be watched, but to be studied. All movies should strive to challenge. It really is that special.

Why to watch Bin-Jip: Romance has never been this unusual.
Why not to watch: Romance hasn’t been this silent in 80 years.


  1. Great example of retitling: "3-Iron" is not a translation of "Bin Jip," which actually means "empty house."

    Some Korean films are very hard to understand, and I often have to ask myself just where the appeal lies. This problem isn't confined to film: I'm usually stumped when I try to figure out how Koreans come up with their Konglishy email addresses. One of my cousins was "evergotcha," for instance; a student of mine was "alusha," etc. Sometimes I think East Asians see life from a very weird angle.

  2. "Empty House" is a better name for this film. "3-Iron" as a title focuses on the golf club that appears a few times as a weapon, or at least a means of violence. "Empty House" is evocative of the way Tae-suk lives his life. It's also evocative of the loveless, brutal marriage of Sun-hwa, and it even has some bearing on the way the film ends.

    I wonder if the title differences say something about Koreans and Americans culturally.

  3. Could be, but my own thinking is that marketers are fucked in the head (the manner in which they're fucked is doubtless culturally determined).

    I rarely see the need for titles to be reworked across cultures. On my blog, we had a discussion about the Korean renaming of "True Grit" as "The Brave" (English, written in hangeul: deo beu rae i beu). Why rename the movie by replacing the English title with another English title? Why not just translate "True Grit" as well as possible into the nearest Korean equivalent?

  4. I think it's the idea of the "nearest Korean equivalent." Translating idiom is difficult, and I can easily see a bad translation of the title True Grit as something like Factual Sand.

    But yes, I agree in the main. The first time I was in Europe, Die Hard 2 was out. The German title translated as "Die Slowly" while the French title was something like "58 Minutes to Live."

  5. Here in Sweden, an increasing number of (english and american) movies never have their titles translated at all. Convenient of course, but if the trend continues it will eventually drain our language and turn us into some kind of pidgin speakers.

    Title trivia: The Morrissey song »Let the right one slip in« gave name to swedish horror novel »Låt den rätte komma in« which was translated into »Let the right one in«, while the US remake of the swedish movie version was named »Let me in«! In my opinion all translations miss the importance of Morrissey's little word »slip«.

  6. dudes 3iron is not a stupid name.. it is a very meaningful name..as 3 iron is the club in golf used least and like our protagonists are discarded.. its a metaphor

  7. Never said it was a stupid name. I only said that "Empty House" is a more evocative name for the film.

    I'd also argue that the 3-iron is the most powerful iron in the game, and most of the golfers I know are more comfortable with irons than with woods, making them more likely to use the 3-iron than a 4- or 5-wood.

    Calling the film 3-Iron seems to me to emphasize not being discarded, but power, since the 3-Iron in the film becomes not a piece of sporting equipment, but a weapon.

  8. 3-Iron is available on YouTube Movies for just $3! So I watched it yesterday. I knew nothing about it. I only have about 12 movies left in the 2001 and later category and 3-Iron is one of them, so when I saw it was only 87 minutes, I decided to watch it before work.

    I didn't even know it was Korean film until I started watching it.

    I love Korean Cinema! I guess I'm just getting lucky, but I keep seeing Korean movies that I love! Stuff from the List like The Good, The Bad and the Weird and The Host, but also movies not on the List, like Train to Busan and memories of Murder.

    And 3-Iron was no exception! What a wonderful movie!

    1. Yeah, I really enjoyed the hell out of this. It's such an odd film in so many ways, but odd in such wonderful ways.

      When I was actively pursuing the List, I bought copies of movies that I knew I'd have to watch. Some I regretted. This one? I never regretted buying it.