Kim Ki-Duk is a very acclaimed yet an outcast director from South Korea. He is responsible for Korean Masterpieces: “The ISLE“, “SPRING Summer FALL Spring“, “Time“, BAD GUY, 3-IRON and some others. This director's style is that he expresses his films with very little dialogue, he intends the actors, actresses to express the story through the expression of raw emotion. You may say his films are a bit on the "artsy" side, but for me, his films deal with the frailties of the human spirit, man's weaknesses and their ability to adapt.
An old man in his sixties (Jeon Seon Hwan) has been raising a young girl (Han Yeo-Reum, Samaritan Girl) since childhood on a ship that floats unanchored off Korea's coastline. The girl hasn't been outside the confines of the boat and as a result, her world are obviously quite limited, but still she seems satisfied and happy, and the old man plans to marry her the day she reaches legal age. The old man is really looking forward to that day and he even counts the final days down by marking them on a calendar. The two make their living by hosting relaxing city boys aboard the boat who wants to fish, and they also practice fortune telling not by cards or a crystal ball but through different means. The old man begins by shooting arrows flying past the girl's head (while she swings back and forth) into a Buddhist painting on the side of the boat. Afterwards, the girl whispers in the old man's ear to share the 'said' fortune. (this type of fortune telling may have been inspired by shooting darts on a spinning disc) Quite a dangerous and bizarre way of foretelling the future.
The old man also provides some other form of entertainment as when the bow is fitted with an additional piece, it becomes a stringed instrument much like the ones used by geishas. But most of the time, the Bow is utilized more often as a means of fending off lustful fishermen from manhandling and taking advantage of the young girl; who braves the elements in a very flimsy dress that accentuates her figure, and who (like all the women in Kim's films) is very gorgeous. Most of the fishermen gossip that the old man supposedly kidnapped the young girl when she was too young to remember. Soon however, a sensitive male college student shows up on board and develops a liking for the girl. The old man discovers he's going to need more than a bow if he wants to keep the pretty young thing for himself.
Kim's mostly common approach to expression is to set the story in an isolated or a marginalized world, usually a physical space or a way of life; places that certain rules, practices and tradition may apply. The delight of watching his films come from exploring and coming to understand these worlds, the applied rules and how they operate. In the film, we see that the bow itself is a means of defense for the old man and the girl in a series of repeating incidents. The boat itself characterizes the "society" of the boat by showing off a man's skill with the bow, (I guess male dominance?) and then how the girl's spatial knowledge of the boat and archery skills is a second line of defense. Kim brings the very compact area of the boat as something that promotes familiarity and that knowledge of one’s surroundings is vital to survival and adaptation.
“The Bow” is the type of film that has a very simple premise. Much of the film’s charm come from the girl and the old man’s relationship. I liked the way Kim portrays her as an innocent and has gotten so used to the arrangement that he allows the old man to even bathe her up to this age. I believe Kim was trying to express innocence and finally the knowledge of malice comes along in the persona of the male student and her exposure to the lecherous fishermen. In a manner, Kim may be trying to bring the thought of outsiders as having a profound influence in a society. Influences cannot be avoided when one opens their space up to others.
As I’ve mentioned, Kim’s films portrays his characters as having very little dialogue; they mostly interact with action. Many would say that the old man and the young girl should be exchanging words since they’ve supposedly spent most of their lives together. I guess this is a way for the direction to express the fact that they know each other enough that there may be no need for interaction and perhaps albeit they spend all this time together, they still suffer from lack of communication. However, this style doesn’t add to character depth, and becomes a little compounded. The fact that they already barely talk to each other, while much of the film shows the old man and the girl growing more emotionally detached, all they can do is trade angry/annoyed stares at each other. (over and over again, again and again) It gets a little repetitive after a while, however, the strong performances of the two leads does help the film along. You can really observe that there is building emotion within a furnace ready to explode.
Kim's style with the limited dialogue approach hampers this film a little, it works in some ways but isn’t as effective as with the lack of words by the lead characters (because they hardly know each other) in THE ISLE and 3-IRON. The minor dialogued actually helped those film’s premise; it worked very well because they could communicate emotionally and the silence accentuates their strange bond. Kim's approach to his film "TIME" would have served much better in the "The Bow".
Kim Ki-Duk’s films are often cryptic and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The final act when we see the old man jumping off the boat after shooting an arrow may be a metaphor to for ‘chance’. The actions of the young girl may definitely mean the lost of innocence and a surrender to the desires of the flesh. I guess the final scene was meant as a cryptic vision of a future (much like the fortune telling) as to what the future holds for the young girl. Kim’s films are always open to interpretation; it is a journey whose joy comes not from answers but rather from its undertaking.
"The Bow" may not be one of my favorites from Kim Ki-Duk, but it is still quite good and very much worth a watch. Always approach his films when you are in a certain mood, remain open-minded and in touch with your senses with your tune to emotion alive, or you may not be able to figure this one out even until its climax. Director Kim Ki-Duk always takes you for a ride. As with most of his films, the ending is pretty much open to the viewer's interpretation. Whether you take it literally or as a metaphor (that's how I took it) is entirely up to you, it is the beauty and art of Kim's filmmaking.