South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk has a thing for morally ambiguous situations. Many of his films are built around characters or relationships that openly chafe against accepted social mores. His provocative tales challenge his audience to either accept what they are watching or to look away from it. There is little in between.
2005's The Bow (Hwal) isn't as harsh as some of his other movies. There is no squirm-inducing self-immolation a la The Isle or repugnant thugs like in Bad Guy, but for some, this may make The Bow even more uncomfortable. Especially as the movie starts rather quietly, taking us deeper into the damaged psychological construct without the shocking flashpoints that might warn us of what's to come.
Ten years ago, a fifty-year-old fisherman (Jeon Sung-Hwan) found a lost six-year-old girl (Han Yeo-Reum) and took her onto his fishing barge. Over the next decade, she hasn't stepped off the ship once. The fisherman has cared for her, teaching her the tools of the trade and developing a rapport with his young ward. As with many Ki-Duk characters, they are both nameless and silent, referred to as only "old man" and "girl," wordlessly communicating with one another in ways outsiders can't understand.
And there are outsiders aplenty. The old man, now pushing sixty, shuttles recreational fishers from the shore to his boat, where they drop their lines and trawl for deep-sea game. Now that the girl is sixteen, though, these customers are starting to notice her. She is very attractive, and too naïve to understand her own budding sensuality. Thinking they'll have an easy time getting their way with a mute girl on an old pervert's boat, they make their moves on the girl, only to be shot at with arrows by the old man.
This is where the title The Bow comes from. An archery bow. It also refers to the bow the pair uses to play music, turning their weapon over and running this sharper string over it, thus creating beauty out of danger--not unlike their relationship. A third bow, of course, would be the bow of the boat itself. All of these are symbols of strength, and as the Buddhist psalm Ki-Duk throws on the screen before the end credits suggests, one should strive to live with such power.
While there are no sexual relations between the old man and the girl, there is definitely the threat of that kind of thing. He bathes her, an act that was probably once innocent but no longer appears as such now that her body has developed. He also intends to marry her when she reaches seventeen, the legal age, and he is slowly buying the pieces of her wedding dress, locking them in a cabinet with her future, only to be retrieved on his say-so. These plans could get derailed, however, as the girl is noticing how the other men look at her, and she is hearing them when they tell her there is a world beyond the boat. The final catalyst comes in the form of a young student (Seo Ji-Seok). He is closer to her own age, and he gives her a music player and headphones, a physical example of the life she has yet to experience. Angry, the old man throws the player away, subjecting the girl to his own frenzied playing, forcing her to listen only to the music he demands of her. She keeps wearing the headphones, however, hearing the sounds of a life she's denied even without being plugged in to anything.
The student makes it his mission to rescue the girl from the barge, but he's got more to contend with than he realizes. There is a deep connection between the man and the girl, an almost spiritual bond that only they comprehend. Some travelers ask for their fortunes to be read by the pair, and to do so, they undertake a bizarre ritual. The girl sits in a swing hanging over the side of the boat, and as she rocks back and forth, the old man fires arrows past her and into the hull of the ship and its painting of a Buddha. The girl removes the arrows, somehow divining the mystical message from their pattern. She whispers the fortune into the old man's ear, and then he whispers it to the subject. It's the only time either of them speak, but we never hear it. It's the chain of communication that the student has to break, remove the middleman and speak to the girl directly.
There are many obvious resolutions to The Bow that Ki-Duk could have gone for, and just reading this, you have probably formed your own opinion on how you would like or expect the story to tie up. The writer/director keeps challenging us right up to the end, though, never telegraphing what his next move is. While common wisdom says the situation has a simple black-and-white morality, a Kim Ki-Duk movie swirls all of that around until the colors are too muddy to be that cleanly divided. The final act of the movie has multiple switch-ups that are somewhat unsettling in that they defy us to predict what steps the three characters will take to get what they want. Not only will it surprise you as a narrative, but it may surprise you with how you react, as well.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on The Bow is flawless. No combing or edge enhancement, no spots or scratches, and strong colors make it a really excellent looking DVD.
Tartan has also given its customers very good sound options, providing both a Dolby Surround and a DTS mix of the original Korean audio in 5.1. The atmosphere is rich, taking advantage of all your speakers.
Subtitles are in English and Spanish.
A photo gallery, trailer, and a four-sided chapter insert, as well as three trailers for other Tartan DVD releases.
There is also a 35-minute "The Making of The Bow" that features interviews with Kim Ki-Duk and actress Han Yeo-Reum alongside footage of the director at work on set with his actors.
Kim Ki-Duk is a provocative South Korean auteur whose prolific output (this is his twelfth feature and he's made two since) doesn't always strike the bullseye, but he rarely fails to make his audience think. The Bow is an example of him being completely on target. A morality play about the relationship of an old man and a young girl, it challenges the audience's preconceptions about what it means to be together and how age influences our choices. More than just a parable, though, The Bow is a good story that uses many of the director's singular personality quirks to give us complex characters in a compelling environment. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.