I’ve only had a slight introduction into the world of Korean director Kim Ki-duk. But on the basis of the two films of his I have seen, the acclaimed 3-Iron and now The Bow, I can tell that he has the ability to get away with what a lot of filmmakers can’t. As I’ve mentioned before in my review of Battle in Heaven, there’s an extremely fine line separating a story that keeps itself short on dialogue for true dramatic effect and a lesser, lazier one that does so just to make itself seem more artsy than it really is. But from what I’ve seen, Ki-duk is the real deal, with The Bow serving as a masterful example of his talent for spinning intriguing stories without ever hardly saying a word.
Our lead character is a 60-year-old fisherman (Jeon Sung-hwan), a rather crusty fellow who allows paying customers to fish off of his own vessel. But completely and utterly off-limits is the 16-year-old girl (Han Yeo-reum) who lives on the boat with him. Having cared for her since she was six, the old fisherman continues to be fiercely protective of her, warding off any creeps to dare to touch her with arrows that he fires with great accuracy. It’s clear that this salty sea dog’s intentions aren’t altogether honorable, as he counts down the days until his charge turns 17 so he can marry her. The girl complies, having known no other life than the one she’s lead on the sea, but when a young man (Seo Ji-seok) arrives, he ends up giving her a taste of what things are like on the mainland, throwing a massive monkey wrench into the middle of the fisherman’s plans.
You may have noticed that none of the characters in The Bow have actual names. It won’t come as a great shock, either, to find out that not a word is spoken by the fisherman or the girl, with scant dialogue provided by those who rent a seat on the fisherman’s boat. But such traits aren’t as a result of Ki-duk finding himself short of stuff to say but rather signs of his ability to tell a powerful story without any extra hang-ups getting in the way. The Bow is teeming with the sort of drama and conflict that no dialogue can truly do justice; forlorn stares and embittered expressions fill every frame of the film, and it’s actually all the better for it. The way the story is set up, with the fisherman and the young woman being the two primary characters and having lived alone with one another for over ten years, it only makes sense that they’ve become so familiar with one another’s emotions and feelings, they have absolutely no need to pour out their hearts in sappy monologues.
This goes without saying that The Bow isn’t without its occasional awkward moments. I can understand why the fisherman whips out his bow at the first chance of trouble, partially out of fatherly protection for the girl and partially due to a “Hands off my goods” mindset, but he unleashes so many arrows upon his patrons so often, it’s a wonder that his business is still even afloat. Plus, the story gets flat-out strange as its winds down to a very dramatic conclusion, culminating in a bizarre scene that I can only describe in three words: phantom arrow sex. Still, Ki-duk isn’t one to lose himself in pretentiousness for too long, as The Bow remains mostly right on the thematic track, delicately playing all the right notes of an increasingly tragic story of love and desire. It’s a tale that’s boosted greatly by the simple yet pitch-perfect performances, each one lifting the characters beyond ending up as one-note caricatures; the fisherman is more than the one-dimensional grump he appears to be, and the girl is far from being a helpless damsel just waiting to be rescued.
As much as I admire the care that went into The Bow, I’ll be the first to admit that by no means is it something the average viewer can just pick up and watch on the fly. It’s something that takes a little more time and effort to watch, but cinephiles can rest assured in knowing that The Bow is a lush and absorbing enough drama to make the time invested in viewing it well spent.