Once the "bad boy" of new Korean cinema—a title that takes some doing to achieve—director Kim Ki-duk earned a reputation for extreme violence and masochism with films like The Isle and Bad Boy, but his career took an abrupt about-face with the serene Buddhist reverie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring. There are glimmers of the old Kim in the mesmerizing 3-Iron, which centers on the sort of quiet, enigmatic, and occasionally violent hero that continually appears in his work. But the new Kim considers him with gentle curiosity and whimsical humor, content to sit back and observe his eccentric behavior, rather than thrusting him into provocative situations. Like Spring, the film floats along gracefully and assuredly without forcing the issue, and its seeming effortlessness results in an oddly transcendent experience, which is a surprise considering how inconsequential the story appears to be.
Told with a bare minimum of dialogue (always a Kim hallmark), 3-Iron stars Jae Hee as a man without a home, drifting around the city on his motorcycle like a ghost, with no apparent connection to anyone in the world around him. Always seeking a place to stay, he has an ingenious method to determine which houses have vacancies: He sticks restaurant flyers on the front door, and if no one removes them after a period of time, he moves in. No ordinary squatter, Jae repays his hosts' involuntary hospitality by leaving these places better than he finds them, doing the laundry and repairing any broken appliances. When beautiful young model Lee Seung-yun finally catches him in the act, the two form a strange and immediate bond, no matter that he's a stranger invading her space. Like a typical Kim hero, Jae immediately becomes protective/possessive of the woman, whose face bears the marks of spousal abuse, and he reaches into a golf bag to find the right tool to exact revenge on her husband.
Though the title refers to an act of brutality, 3-Iron affects a gentle tone that reflects the sea change in Kim's sensibility since Spring, allowing for moments of deft silent comedy that weren't present in his earlier work. Kim is a prolific director, and his third effort in just over a year feels determinedly minor in its ambition, just another in his series about romantic alliances that don't follow the conventional rules. Yet much like the films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, especially the strikingly similar Vive L'Amour, 3-Iron gains its hypnotic power by observing these characters through a slight remove. With total command of his effects, Kim transforms an already peculiar romance into something as otherworldly as a ghost story.