Friday, August 15, 2008

The Bow review

Kim Ki-duk’s latest offering is another festival film, void of commercialism and filled with contemplation. With The Bow, Kim continues familiar themes in familiar ways, sticking with his indie film sensibilities and keen priority of character exploration despite his rapidly increasing international popularity. Sado-masochism aside, the film at first recalls The Isle, as it takes place in one single maritime set, here an old boat in the middle of the ocean. Its only two occupants are a sixty-year old man and the sixteen year old girl he found ten years ago and raised solely on the boat. They survive by bringing in fishermen from town (though we never leave the boat) that come to relax, drink and make sexual advances on the girl. Usually at least until the old man scares the wits out of them with his bow and arrows.

The fishermen usually assume the two are related, however, the man actually has plans to marry the girl when she turns 17. These plans, along with the girl’s love for the man are soon jeopardized though, when she falls for a teenager who arrives one day and feels she needs to see the world beyond the boat.

With a running time just short of ninety minutes, The Bow still drags. There is plenty to appreciate, from the perfect acting behind the man and the girl who never speak during the entire film to the symbols at work. There’s the underlying Buddhist mysticism to enhance the film with magical realism. And the humanistic themes of morality, trust and relationships that keep us thinking over the course of the film. But it’s just lost its appeal to some degree. Our constant exposure to mute characters in most of Kim’s films lessens the impact. The themes in his love triangle do not have as striking an effect either. Newcomers may be fascinated by some of the same old Kim techniques, but many fans will be wishing for more originality.

However, The Bow isn’t completely rehashed work. Kim makes it his most musically dependent film ever, as the old man’s bow doubles as a stringed instrument when a drum is added to it. This folky violin-esque music works well for the mood with the strong visuals of gorgeous ocean scenes. Kim also layers the relationship in this film with new questions and feelings for the audience. The ambiguity in this relationship is still fascinating when we must wonder if the girl is there of her own will. Or if we feel we should sympathize with the old man. Is he her savior and protector? Or are his intentions purely perverted? Kim knows exactly what we are thinking, and adds nuances to the plot in this way to twist our emotions. The plot’s action drags because Kim focuses on this aspect of his craft.

Still, the film personally had little effect. The film can leave a Kim Ki-duk fan with mixed reactions. We want to like the film because it is uniquely Kim. And we’re glad he’s retaining certain characteristics, while slowly making progress like he does with each subsequent film. But when The Bow ends, part of me wants to laugh and the other part is still waiting to be impressed. It never feels as special as it tries to be.


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