Sun 2 Jun 2013
‘The Bow’ comes in the work of prolific Kim Ki-duk immediately after a series of three wonderful films – ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring’, ‘Samaritan Girl’ and ’3-Iron’ and a few year after his other masterpiece ‘The Isle’. I have somehow missed seeing it when it came out, or maybe it was not distributed in Israel. Now I caught up with the film on VoD and my impression is that it marks exactly the moment when the Korean director started a series of less successful experiments. Of course, one cannot expect even from a great director like Kim (and he is one of the best living creators in cinema) to produce only masterpieces. Hopefully he has in front of him many years of fine film making and we are here to enjoy his films.
Part of the problem with The Bow is that it repeats to some extent the format of the some of the previous successful films, taking a story of child-teenage initiation and mixing it with traditional (Buddhist I believe, but I am not very knowledgeable) concepts. So for viewers of some of his previous films, there is a strong and possibly intentional feeling of ‘deja-vu’, enhanced by the fact that as the story here happens in an isolated environment surrounded by water. The Old Man (Seong Hwan-jeon) is growing for the last ten years a Young Girl (beautiful Han Yeo-reum). They never speak. The only contact of the girl with the outer world is when visitors come for recreational fishing aboard, visitors from the outer world that she may even not remember. Some of them would like to abuse her but she and her protector know how to defend themselves with the help of the only weapon at hand, a traditional bow. Some other may come with better intents, as the young man who falls for the girl and tries to save and take her back to the world. But this is what she wants? This is certainly not what the old man wants, he plans to marry her when she reaches the age of 17.
There is a lot to think about and discuss around this story. Tradition faces modernity, is necessarily one better than the other? Does the girl really want to be saved? The old man may have saved an abandoned six years girl and grew her, but is he entitled to marry her and continue to control her life, to keep her isolated from the world? And is that world better than the smaller and innocent universe they were living in? His keeping the girl isolated may be judged by the world outside as kidnapping and abuse, is this the case? None of these questions have an unambiguous answer and this is not a problem, quite the contrary. Neither is acting (wonderful!) or the cinematography as good as you can expect in a film by Kim Ki-duk. The problem I have is with the final which I will not tell too many details about in order to avoid spoiling the pleasure of the viewing. There is a very strong metaphor here involving of course the bow, which produced me a shock and caused me an ambiguous feeling, not because of the visuals (I am used to much harsher things) but because of its moral meanings and the way it is directed and acted. For once I would have preferred a different way of ending. Kim Ki-duk decided differently.