Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Shhhhhh! We’re celebrating movies with little to no dialogue.
Movie characters who never speak generally have an explicit reason for clamming up. Perhaps they’re mute, or deeply traumatized, or making some sort of statement, or punishing others with their silence. Even when the reason is unknown, that’s typically acknowledged—Holly Hunter has no onscreen dialogue in The Piano, but the movie opens by having her explain, in voiceover narration, “I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me.” We accept that and move on. Kim Ki-duk’s largely wordless 3-Iron, by contrast, provides no such rationale. One of its two protagonists doesn’t utter a sound from start to finish (though it’s implied that he talks at one point, during an interaction that’s pointedly not shown), and the other speaks only in the film’s last few minutes; not only is this never explained, but it also goes essentially unquestioned by the other characters, as if their behavior were perfectly normal. One could call it a stunt, but it feels more like a self-challenge on Kim’s part: Can I communicate the heart of this story entirely in images, without resorting to language? He succeeds magnificently.
3-Iron was part of a notable but short-lived gearshift for Kim early in the century, after he’d initially made a name for himself terrorizing the festival circuit with disturbing, grotesque films like The Isle (2000) and Bad Guy (2001). At the time, he’d just scored his first U.S. hit with the quasi-Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring (2003), and 3-Iron finds the erstwhile provocateur struggling to reconcile his inner Gandhi with his inner Gotti. That conflicted mindset is reflected in his male lead, a nameless and homeless dude (Jae Hee) who lives a bizarre, solitary existence—equal parts intruder, squatter, and magical elf. Tooling around town on a motorcycle, he papers apartment doors with restaurant flyers, then returns a day or two later to see whether any remain undisturbed, a clear sign that the residents aren’t currently around. He breaks in, raids the refrigerator, snoops about—but he also does the laundry, waters the plants, fixes broken appliances. And if you’re an abusive asshole who’s left his trophy wife (Lee Seung-yun) cowering in petrified silence, too catatonic even to stir when this benign intruder unexpectedly turns up in her home… well, your golf clubs are about to be put to use by somebody highly unlikely to yell, “Fore!”
A charming if perverse romance for most of its running time, 3-Iron confounds expectation with a left-field, third-act detour into goofy mysticism, as the man begins training himself to be unseen as well as unheard. Opinion can be divided on that aspect, but it’s hard not to appreciate the masterful way that Kim depicts the film’s central relationship, which is neither verbal nor explicitly sexual. (When the lovers finally kiss, he chastely fades out.) These two lonely souls just intuitively understand each other, communicating with their eyes, hands, and feet; it feels as if dialogue between them wouldn’t be anything but a needless distraction. The sense of quiet beatitude extends beyond them, too; the loveliest moment involves seeing the woman silently ask permission to take a nap on a stranger’s couch, and receive it. The film’s bizarre ending—in which this duo becomes an improbable (all but impossible, really) trio, including the woman’s still-awful husband—errs on the side of schmaltz, perhaps, but it’s also so weirdly ambivalent that the warm fuzzies feel earned. If nothing else, Kim demonstrates that conversation is optional, and so is any logical justification for its complete absence.