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Silence, although exceedingly rare in today’s urbanized East, is a crucial element in traditional Asian aesthetics. From ceramics to cinema, Asia has long valued stillness, simplicity, and internalization more than chatter. Eastern film’s latest advocate of the big hush is Kim Ki-duk, whose films are quieter than a staring contest between Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Because of his interest in sex and violenceand his seemingly misogynistic insistence on a link between the twothe Korean writer-director-editor has a reputation for obstreperousness. Yet his work is as Spartan as it is lurid. There’s very little dialogue in The Isle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, and even less in the new 3-Iron. In fact, the central characters in Kim’s latest never utter a word, making the near-mute protagonist of Unleasheda Cantonese-flavored international co-productionlook garrulous by comparison.
3-Iron begins with a most un-American notion: the benign housebreaker. A young motorcyclist who’s never namedbut is identified in the credits as Tae-suk (Jae Hee)delivers carryout menus throughout Seoul, covering neighborhoods that are both upscale and down-, modern and traditional. Later, he returns to find a door with an undisturbed menu and picks the lock. Tae-suk eats the absent residents’ food, wears their clothes, and photographs himself with their images of themselves, but he pays for his impudence by fixing broken gizmos, watering plants, and hand-washing laundry. When he finds a home that requires more than this, he doesn’t shirk; at one place, he even buries a forgotten corpse, painstakingly following tradition. Like the director himself, Tae-suk clearly appreciates ritual.
The notion of secret cohabitants is not unknown in recent films from Asia, whose high-density cities have yielded a culture of proximity and alienation. In Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, a woman expresses her secret love for a Hong Kong cop by appropriating the key to his place and cleaning it regularly, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour maneuvers three lonely people through several officially unoccupied Taipei apartments. During Tae-suk’s trespasses, he also finds despair and emptiness, notably in the form of Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), a middle-aged beauty who’s regularly beaten by her businessman husband (Kwon Hyuk-ho). Sun-hwa is so defeated that Tae-suk can’t even sense her presence; he wanders through her house for hours as she observes him, unaware that he’s not alone.
When Tae-suk finally notices Sun-hwa, he resolvessilently, of courseto rescue her. He pummels her husband with golf balls, then takes the bruised woman and the film’s titular club with him. Without ever speaking a word to each other, the two become lovers of a sortthough there’s no sex on displayand partners in Tae-suk’s game. Together, they break, enter, and enjoy various households, most of them revealed to be joyless. (Is it coincidence that the most traditional-looking home also has the most nurturing vibe?) Eventually, Tae-suk and Sun-hwa are caught by the cops; he’s sent to jail, she back to her husband. In his cell, Tae-suk practices becoming even less of a presence until he turns almost invisible. In order to return to Sun-hwa, he essentially becomes a ghost.
This makes a certain amount of sense, given that Tae-suk seems to have been aspiring to a sort of figmentary existence. Suggesting a slacker version of the monk in Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, the character is a B&E bodhisattva, a shadow of the good. What doesn’t click is the supposedly central relationship between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa. Because they neither speak nor screw, there’s no sense of connection between them, whether intellectual, emotional, or erotic. Perhaps Kim thought that liberating a battered wife would purify his own karma of its cinematic crimes against women, but the gambit doesn’t work narratively. Tae-suk’s true love is clearly the floating world, not Sun-hwa.
At 87 minutes, 3-Iron is taut and clever but also a trifle. It succeeds as an existential caper flick, a critique of contemporary Korea’s unhappy affluence, and a formal exercise in shadows and silencea gently amusing, impeccably composed blend of Buddhist transience, ninja technique, and Chaplin-esque spirit. Yet the movie never seems as uncanny as it intends to be, and the script’s resolution is as banal as the concluding maxim that tries to justify it. Though 3-Iron may come as a relief to those who’ve found the director’s previous work too confrontational, the film’s geniality diminishes it. Whether or not he actually uses dialogue, Kim is most himself when he’s outspoken.
A grubbily clever gangsta-psych case history, Unleashed purports to offer a glimpse inside the brain of a human pit bull: Danny (Jet Li), a man raised from an early age to be nothing but a Glasgow loan shark’s enforcer. It’s a neat idea, but Danny’s meager consciousness can’t compare to that of the guy who created him, French writer-producer Luc Besson. The most entertaining aspect of watching this latter-day B-movie is imagining Besson at work, playing all the angles with an ardor that would overwhelm most contemporary Hollywood execs. In the tradition of such vanished American junk auteurs as Roger Corman, Besson treats opportunism and exigency as a sort of poetry.
At bottom, Unleashed is the tale of a wild-child assassin, a familiar figure in the movies Besson has directed, notably La Femme Nikita and The Professional. Danny wears a collar and lives in a cage; he’s loosed only when the comically malicious Bart (Bob Hoskins) needs to have someone brutalized. But Danny doesn’t want to be his dog. The childlike thug treasures his teddy bear and gazes longingly at the illustrations in an alphabet book: “K is for kiss, L is for love….” (Of course, only a primer that’s translated from the French would use “kiss” rather than “kite” or “love” instead of “leaf.”) To be redeemed, all Danny needs is tendernessand music.
He finds both in a chance encounter with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner who’s followed teenage stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) from New York to Glasgow, where she’s studying piano. After Danny excels at a new gigdeath matches at some clandestine club on the Road Warrior side of townBart offers a reward, and Danny amuses his owner by asking for a piano. But then Bart makes the first of several disappearances and Danny gets something even better: a chance to move in with mellow Sam, chirpy Victoria, and an electronic keyboard. His new friends are only too happy to teach him basic life skillssuch as how to pick a ripe melon at Spar, a provincial convenience-store chain that’s not known for its produceand to solve the mystery of his origins. Danny, in turn, must protect them when Bart resurfaces, in a final-act dilemma much like the ones faced by the protagonists of Besson’s previous killer-elite flicks.
It’s easy to mock the incongruity of all this. Why Glasgow? Why Morgan Freeman? And how did a Hong Kong martial artist end up in the middle of the whole mess? One set of answers is strictly utilitarian: Having dallied unsatisfyingly with Hollywood for such pictures as The Fifth Element and The Messenger, Besson decided to write and produce (but not direct) his own brand of English-language international cinema. The first two of these films, Kiss of the Dragon and The Transporter, were set in France yet incorporated Asian-action-cinema modes and stars (Li and Shu Qi, respectively). The Transporter also added elements of the Guy Ritchie Cockney-gangster farce, including star Jason Steatham. Ritchie may be nothing more than Cool Britannia’s Tarantino, but he’s got a flashy routine that’s not made in the U.S.A., which must appeal to Besson. (The producer probably has his eye on Bollywood and Seoul, too.)
Scottish Film Board funding probably didn’t hurt, either. Yet Besson’s script also features conceptual flourishes that involve narrative and character, not just money and logistics. The characterization of Danny as shellshocked and almost voiceless plays to Li’s limited ability to deliver lines (at least in English); Danny’s tiny blossoming parallels the actor’s modest expansion of technique. Besson, action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, and the film’s designated director, Louis Leterrier, even subvert Li’s balletic style. When Danny is Bart’s dog, he fights like one, with graceless movements and savage efficiency. It’s only when Danny becomes human and decides that he doesn’t want to hurt people anymore that he begins to parry and twist like Jet Li.
Such conceits were once routine in B-movies, but they seem positively astute next to the output of contemporary Hollywood, whose top-of-the-line product doesn’t bother to connect the most basic dots. Unleashed is nothing great, yet it has an integrity rare in recent American movies, which substitute star power and special effects for ideas. While George Lucas attends to McDonald’s tie-ins, Besson actually pays attention to what’s onscreen. And that’s enough to justify his having a little empire of his own. CP