Whether it be the dumb pander in "Bad Guy" (2002), the silent sneak in "3-Iron" (2004), or the mute monks of "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring" (2003), Kim Ki-duk loves silencing his puppets for our amusement. By hushing his heroes Kim sharpens our eyes to the meditative magic of the moving image. Dense dialogue and consuming chatter play second fiddle to the slow and symbolic seduction of curious characters lost in space. This is Kim's world, a placid and ethereal place that orbits a volatile sun with unseen molten madness at its core. There are both deep-seated and distance threats lurking in Kim's creations, forces that exist just out of frame that may, at any time, strike and sully the event with unadulterated Armageddon and subconscious conspiracies.
In "The Bow", Kim's twelfth feature, we are taken far out to sea to witness a tragic tale of love and loss. The aging vessel is captained by an old man (Jeon Seong-hwan), a salted sailor who, ten years ago, adopted a young girl (Han Yeo-reum) he found adrift and unclaimed. Years have passed and the untouched teen is now at the age that her seadog saviour wishes to soon tie the knot. With more than half a century between them, the fishermen who board this anchorless arc to fish the weekend away begin to raise an eyebrow at the man's intentions and the nature of their relationship. Those who try to make their own advances towards the young girl are swiftly met with a well-placed arrow as a warning, a clear reminder that the captain has claimed her and won't tolerate interference from outsiders.
However the captain's long-term marriage plans get disturbed when a younger man comes to fish; a fresh face that captures the girl's gaze, challenges her imposed naivety, and triggers a curiosity that, at her age, cannot so easily be drowned out. The combination of her maturing mind and the young man's grounded sense of morality threatens to capsize the captain's big day. But despite the inappropriateness of the two's relationship there is real love, a decade-long bond aboard a boat that will have to be dead reckoned or sunk.
"The Bow" is a slow and sure journey that tactfully tackles taboo and attempts to plot a wide course around social judgement. Far away from the shore and the minds of the masses, here the world is simpler, timeless, and seemingly unanchored to the mainland morals. Relationships of this questionable nature are not uncommon in Korean cinema, and here Kim paints a poetic picture of it that forces reality into what is otherwise a surreal shipwreck of desire. Music, bows, beds, and boats are just some of the soft symbols used to weave a captivating tale of this unlikely pairing and their fate. Kim's fetishistic fantasies are given cinematic clout through harsh conflicts, the film's isolating setting, and surreally silent subjects, but also fills an empathetic sail that one cannot help but be caught up in.
It is arguably not one of the master's most watertight efforts, but inter-filmographical comparisons seem clumsy and unnecessary with Kim. I thoroughly enjoyed the outing; its uncluttered and calm coating is seductive and sublime. As the film ticked on, I wondered how, exactly, Kim might successfully eject me from this intense voyage, and while the final moments are marvellously magical, by this point Kim had entranced me enough to getaway with its fantasical finale. Crafty and cruel, "The Bow" is ethereal expedition into a watery abyss, a liquid love letter written in captivity and daringly delivered through a wet dream.
Available on DVD from YESASIA
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