An elegiac portrait of elemental love complicated by the outside world, Kim Ki-duk’s “The Bow” is the most musical of the maverick Korean director’s 12 features to date. Shot through with obsessive/religious elements from many of his previous works — especially “The Isle,” “Bad Guy,” “3-Iron” and “Spring, Summer, Fall…” — pic also recalls, in its abstract-realist setting (here, a small fishing boat in a boundless ocean), chamber Japanese movies of the early ’60s. Exotic detail should hook upscale arthouse auds, though film’s more intimate, less elaborate scope will keep it from being an earner on a par with “Spring, Summer…”
Opening shots of an old man constructing a Korean fiddle (similar to the Chinese erhu) out of a bow and a sound drum set up the strong role that music plays in the movie, as well as the familiar Kim subtext of emotions taut as a bowstring. The Old Man (Jeon Sung-hwan) hires out places on his tiny, beat-up fishing boat to amateur anglers from the mainland.
The boat’s only other full-time occupant is a 16-year-old Girl (striking Han Yeo-reum, from Kim’s “Samaritan Girl”), an ever-smiling child of nature who’s lived on the craft for the past 10 years, after being “found” by the Old Man when she was still a child. As their wedding day approaches, three months’ hence, the Old Man slips away to buy some traditional wedding duds.
Most of the fishermen who pay for angling time on the boat are leering slobs fascinated by the relationship between the grizzled, 60-year-old boat owner and the flashing-eyed teen. When they try to take advantage of the Girl, she rarely puts up a struggle, knowing she’ll always be protected by the Old Man. In a trice, his fiddle — reconverted into a bow and iron-headed arrows and shot with potentially deadly accuracy — make their point.
In one of the pic’s most delightful inventions, the Old Man also uses his archery skills to tell the fishermen’s fortunes on request. The Girl sits in a swing over the side of the boat with pieces of cloth tied round her wrists and sways back and forth in front of a painted Buddha on the hull, while the Old Man fires arrows into the portrait from his transport craft. The “luck” of him missing her transmutes into good fortune for the fishermen.
With its remote, sea-and-sky setting (no land is ever shown), the paucity of dialogue (the Old Man and Girl never speak) and naked emotions, it’s abundantly clear from the first few reels that this is a return to the highly abstract world of “The Isle,” the first film to bring Kim to international attention. However, here the central relationship isn’t driven by sadomasochistic rituals; instead, like all of Kim’s movies since “Spring, Summer…,” it’s driven by an absolute trust between the two that, in its strange way, is an expression of absolute love.
Trouble rears its head when one group of fishermen includes a handsome young College Student (Seo Ji-seok). He introduces her to the joys of his portable music player, castigates the Old Man for keeping her cooped up on the boat, and soon there’s conflict in the couple’s floating Garden of Eden.
Kim keeps the slim storyline afloat with a neat mixture of twists and turns in the second half and lashings of musical interludes as the Old Man plays his fiddle. Auds’ reactions to the latter will very much depend on their liking for the melancholy sound of the instrument — similar to a rough viola, among Western instruments — but the music, scored like an orchestral concerto by composer Kang Eun-il, is part-and-parcel of the whole filmic conceit: the bow as both protector and muse, both deadly and spiritually nurturing.
Though the isolated setting also recalls “Spring, Summer…,” pic has much less variation and exotic detail to keep general viewers hooked. However, the two central perfs, though sans dialogue, are beautifully calibrated, especially Jeon’s as the fiercely protective but ultimately sad Old Man, for whom the Girl is his only reason for living. Surreal ending, which requires a leap of faith by the viewer, is moving in an unmelodramatic way.
Tech package is immaculate, with striking use of color (the Girl’s red dress, the wedding duds) that’s vivid without looking over-saturated. Principal photography on the boat was accomplished during an amazing 17 days in January near Incheon, but weather-wise cuts together seamlessly.
Pic opens locally in South Korea in mid-May, distributed by Kim’s own company, a first for the multi-hyphenate.