Sunday 17 August 2008

The Bow (2005)

I've been getting seriously into Korean cinema lately. While I had almost no knowledge of it at all until recently, I had seen the odd thing in the past and the oldest of them was a Kim Ki-duk film, a monster movie from 1967 called Yonggary, Monster from the Deep. This film, along with a few others being marketed in the west by Tartan Video and shown on the Sundance channel as part of their Extreme Asia series, is also a Kim Ki-duk film. What I didn't realise until now is that these are two different Kim Ki-duks and they're not related. This one was only born in 1960, making him only seven when Yonggary came out. I wonder if seeing his name up there on the big screen was why he was drawn to the industry.

This more recent Kim Ki-duk has a penchant for more artistic films than monster movies and has gathered some notable acclaim for his work, not least for Samaritan Girl and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. While I have Samaritan Girl and Time on my DVR and The Coast Guard coming soon, this is only my second of his films after Bad Guy. That was hardly a conventional film and neither is this. Neither one of them are easy to read.

We're on a fishing boat out in the sea, far enough out so that land is not visible. Living on the boat are two people who have no names and who almost never speak. One is a 60 year old man and the other is a 16 year old girl, but she's not his granddaughter, she's his fiancee. Apparently he found her when she was six years old, though we're not told how, and they're supposed to marry on her 17th birthday. The inference is that she's never left the boat at all during those ten years, though she's met plenty of people, given that the old man brings them on board on paid fishing expeditions.

Initially life seems to be good, even blissful. They spend their time swinging off the side of the boat, practicing archery and playing a stringed instrument built out of the same bow used to shoot with. In the various interactions with the visiting fisherman, it's obvious that the old man is jealous of anyone who gets close to her but that she cares for him. He's also been building up her wedding accoutrements for some time and is getting more and more impatient for their wedding day, manipulating the time through use of a calendar.

Then, a young student gets thrown into the mix. He's a visiting fisherman, brought by his dad, and there's an immediate connection between him and the girl. While his jealousy continues, her looks to him change considerably. The student sees it as his duty to seek out her happiness, by taking her away from her kidnapper and seeking out the parents who are still looking for her. Now everything changes: the way the girl sees things and the way her keeper/protector/kidnapper treats her.

This was an intriguing film, hypnotically told and it makes very good use of the deliberately limited cast and locations. There's a lot of symbolism here, meanings not just laid out for all to see. We don't see land at any point in this film: just the boat the two leads live on and the smaller boat that the old man uses to ferry fisherman to and fro. To the young girl the boat and the water is her entire world. There's hardly any dialogue in the film, which tells its story through imagery and symbolism. While it sounds strange to say it, this is a very cinematic film. Too many films nowadays would work just as well if you turned the visuals off and experienced them like a radio play. This one is all about the visuals. None of the characters have names.

The most obvious symbolism ties to the bow of the title, which has many meanings: not least as weapon and as art. It protects both the old man and the young girl, but it also provides much of their entertainment. It also plays a major part in the dangerous fortunes that the old man tells for people: he fires arrows at the Buddhist painting on the side of the boat, in front of which the young girl is swinging, presumably the placement of the arrows providing the fortune. The soundtrack is almost entirely string based and there's a quote at the end that ties to a direction for life and could easily be seen as a mirror of the life of the two lead characters on the boat and how the change is both good and bad.

Like Bad Guy, it didn't knock me out but it did make me more and more interested in the work of this filmmaker, who wrote and directed here. It prompts a lot of questions and that's usually a good sign. One interpretation offered in the comments at IMDb by a poster called Horia sees the film as an metaphor for the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Everyone is a symbol: the old man is the ego, the girl the soul, the fisherman the thoughts, the bow consciousness and the young man enlightenment. I have no idea if this is what Kim Ki-duk intended but it does make sense. More questions...

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