Judge Joel Pearce uses his expressions and actions, rather than the written word, to review the latest work of Kim Ki-duk.
The old man and the sea, and an underage girl.
It's always a little exciting and scary to sit down to a Kim Ki-duk film, because you never quite know what you're in for. The only real guarantee is that it will be complicated, challenging, unsettling, thought provoking, and likely a little frustrating. The Bow is all of those things, though I don't think it quite lives up to the legacy he has created with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring and 3-Iron. Still, adventurous film watchers will not want to miss this exploration of love, morality, and nautical life.
Facts of the Case
An old man (Seong-hwang Jeon) lives on a boat that he rents out for recreational fishing. He lives with a 16-year-old girl (Yeo-reum Han, Samaritan Girl) who most guests assume is his granddaughter, but she's not. In fact, she has been living on the boat since she was six years old, and the old man plans to marry her when she turns 17. Most of the guests find that quite unpalatable, made worse by the fact that the two boat dwellers have a strange way of telling peoples' fortunes: he fires arrows past her, sinking them into an image of Buddha painted on the side of the boat.
When a male college student arrives on the boat, it awakens something in the girl. Now, all three characters must struggle with each other, as well as with their own desires.
There's certainly no denying that Kim Ki-duk embraces controversy with the same enthusiasm that most studio executives flee from it. Apparently, he had a hard time simply casting The Bow, thanks to its controversial topic and unflinching approach. While this frightens the studios, though, it makes his one of the clearest, most fascinating voices to come out of international cinema.
Nothing about The Bow is easy. The story seems simple at first, but it becomes increasingly slippery as the film carries on. We're never sure how we're supposed to think about the issues raised by the film, and towards the end, it's not even clear what's happening. The only thing we know for sure is that Kim Ki-duk has now fully moved away from the misogyny that marred his early films. The girl here, who remains nameless and voiceless throughout, is a prisoner on the boat. She is leered at by the guests on the boat, and although the old man treats her respectfully, there is something intensely disturbing about their relationship. He treats her like a father, but plans to marry her as well. In this relationship, we are confronted with societal expectations of desire. All of the male characters desire this figurative mermaid, and as far as the boy is concerned, it's hard to blame him. She is an attractive young teen, the kind of girl that young boys are supposed to lust after. We have less sympathy for the thirty-something men who make advances on her. Even if they are drunk, that behavior is inexcusable. For the old man, though, there is something truly unsettling about his desire. After all, he has cared for her since she was six. No matter how tender he is, we cannot get past how wrong his love is.
But as Kim Ki-duk explains during the production featurette, societal views on acceptable relationships are simply that. Who's to say that the old man doesn't care deeply for her, and that his intentions aren't good. It's something we don't even want to consider, but we do know that the boy does not know much about the girl when he makes his move—simply that she is young, beautiful, and living with a man far too old for her. As the film reaches its conclusion, the climax complicates this matter even more. I don't like what I think The Bow is trying to say, but I'm not sure I even begin to understand it. There are cultural things at work here, and metaphorical things, too. The only thing I can be sure of is that I've just seen a beautiful work of art, and I will be thinking about it for quite a while.
The Bow has other things to consider as well. Like in some of his other films, the characters here perform mostly through silence, rather than through speech. Neither the girl nor the old man speaks audibly in the film, which forces their characters to come out through their expressions and their actions. This adds to the ambiguity of the film, and it also impacts the nature of their relationship. There is nothing friendly or familiar about the way they live together, even though it is intimate and tender. In too many films, the thoughts and ideas of characters are spilled out from the screen, leading us through the narrative like animals on leashes. With this level of silence, we can never be truly sure about these characters, and that prevents us from defending or condemning them. We can only know of them what we know of other people in real life, and can never truly reach below the surface.
Like in most of Kim Ki-duk's films, the characters live in isolation. Here, in a film that never has a view of land, that isolation is physical as well as symbolic. The old man has tried to create his own world for the girl, one in which she is protected and cared for under his watchful eye. There is nothing in this world that he doesn't control, until she starts to think and make decisions for herself. Then he must rethink everything, just as she has a major decision to make. To leave would mean breaking the old man's heart, the only thing she's ever been able to rely on. To stay would mean never knowing anything beyond the boat, and not following her own heart. The end is both frustrating and suitable, in that I'm not sure I could have come up with a better ending, but it left me with so many questions that have gone unanswered. Still, it's a film that fan's of Kim Ki-duk's work will not want to miss.
In all, this is a solid release from Tartan Video. The image quality is acceptable but not exceptional, as it is (as usual) not progressively flagged and looks ugly on high quality displays. The sound is good, though, as both the Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks make regular use of the surrounds for ambient noise. The only extra included is a production featurette, which runs about 30 minutes. It has some interview footage with the director and cast, but aside from a few cryptic comments, these don't shed much light on how we should interpret the film. I would love to have a commentary track from Kim Ki-duk, a chance to hear his ideas about the film firsthand.
Like the rest of this director's work, The Bow isn't an easy recommendation for most people. It's an art film in the purest sense, a film that uses visuals instead of dialogue and plot development to tell a story. Most viewers will simply be frustrated and others will be offended, but with an open mind and a willingness to explore the issues, The Bow can be a fascinating and enriching experience. Again, I'm not defending what it's trying to say, but I will defend the passion with which it has been said.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Production Featurette
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