The Bow (활, Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

The bowKim Ki-duk is not known for his conventional approach to morality but even so his 12th feature, The Bow (활, Hwal), takes things to a whole new level of uncomfortable complexity. While nowhere near as extreme as some of Kim’s other work, The Bow takes the form of a fable as an old man and a young girl remain locked inside a mutually dependent relationship which, one way to another, is about to change forever.

The old man owns a fishing boat on which he lives with a young girl most assume to be his granddaughter. This theory is quickly disproved by the old man’s obsession with his wall calendar on which he excitedly crosses of the dates, making a note of how many there are left until the circled day on which is marked the word “wedding”. Whose wedding, one is apt to ask but the obvious answer is the correct one. The old man plans to marry the young girl on her 17th birthday. Having “found” her ten years ago, he’s been patiently raising her and now awaits his reward. It’s not clear if he has actually asked the girl, who seems to look to him as a paternal rather than romantic figure, but at any rate the relationship between them seems fairly solid at this point.

That is until one fateful day a young and handsome student boards the boat and immediately captures the girl’s attention. Having been cooped up here for ten a whole years seeing no one other than the old man and the guys who come to fish, the girl is instantly smitten – just like Miranda laying eyes on Ferdinand for the very first time. The old man is worried – is he about to lose his prize bride to a young buck? With the fateful day approaching, the girl becomes increasingly cold and rebellious towards her father/husband-to-be, though which direction she will eventually choose is anyone’s guess.

The old man is very protective of his charge, taking out his bow and arrow when the other guys on the boat try it on (and some take the chase to quite unpleasant places) but perhaps that’s more about defending his property from spoilage than it is about saving a defenceless girl from a traumatic situation. Neither the girl nor the old man speak very much, occasionally one whispers to the other who then passes the message on via another whisper to whomever it was intended for. Perhaps they genuinely have no need for talking but at any rate the girl never voices any objections to her life on the boat and the only signs of rejection given are a sullen look, rebellious courting of the customers and finally a good old fashioned slap to the face.

The bow of the title is both a weapon and a musical instrument when the string is tightened over a drum rather than across an arrow. The artist and the warrior are truly two sides of the same coin, swapping drums for arrows as the occasion calls. The old man, who is more or less cast as the protagonist of the tale meeting a final swan song, has all these qualities. A rough sea hand, he lives a life of isolation alone with the girl on a boat in the middle of the sea, the music their only form of entertainment. As well as the fishing business, the man also tells the fortunes of his customers by firing arrows at a picture of a Buddhist deity while the girl rides a swing in front. The boat itself is a world entire, with its own rules and rituals – all things are contained inside of it, violence mixed with beauty and love mixed with fear.

It’s ironic in one sense that the girl’s would be rescuer is another man with less prurient designs, but still designs all the same, on her as a woman. That she’s apparently lived on this boat for ten years with people coming and going all the time and with no great attempts to maintain a convenient excuse is shocking in itself. Whether the relationship between the old man is entirely genuine or born of a kind of Stockholm syndrome is a matter for debate, but Kim opts not to fully explore the uncomfortable elements of this unusual situation in favour of casting the old man as a kind of love fool.

Though actually featuring much more dialogue than the average Kim film, The Bow is at heart a symbolic exercise which becomes a complex and extended Buddhist metaphor. Playing out like a boat bound The Tempest, the old man becomes Prospero with a bow rather than a staff and as a prophet rather than a magician. The student, like Ferdinand, shatters their peace by bringing the outside world into their idyll with all of its pleasures and complications. The old man faces a choice, burn his books and abandon his kingdom or keep his daughter/wife-to-be fearful enough to stay with him rather than the young man who offers her, literally, the world, which she has never known. Kim descends into a surrealist frenzy as the finale approaches, culminating either in a beyond the grave consummation of true love or a spiritual rape, depending on your point of view. Whichever you choose, The Bow is both a complex and poetic exploration of human relationships but one that proves unpalatable and, ultimately, hollow.


Original English language trailer (dialogue free, English text)

Failan (파이란, Song Hae-sung, 2001)

FailanSometimes God’s comic timing is impeccable. You might hear it said that love transcends death, becomes an eternal force all of its own, but the “love story”, if you can call it that, of the two characters at the centre of Song Hae-sung’s Failan (파이란, Pairan), who, by the way, never actually meet, occurs entirely in the wrong order. It’s one thing to fall in love in a whirlwind only to have that love cruelly snatched away by death what feels like only moments later, but to fall in love with a woman already dead? Fate can be a cruel master.

The titular Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a migrant from mainland China who’s travelled to Korea in search of her last remaining relatives following the death of her family. Unfortunately, they moved abroad some time ago and no one knows how to contact them. Stuck in Korea, Failan is running out of options but a “kindly” woman suggests a phoney visa marriage so she can legally stay in the country and earn her keep at the same time.

So, she ends up married to the feckless petty gangster-cum-video-store-proprietor Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik). We meet him around a year later and it’s his story we follow for the first half of the film as he gets out of jail after being arrested for selling adult videos to horny teenagers. Kang-jae quickly gets into an argument with his gangster boss, Young-sik (Son Byung-ho), but as they’re also old friends they patch things up over a drink only for the evening to go way south when Young-sik spots a rival gang member and ends up beating him to a bloody pulp whilst in a trance-like rage.

Young-sik is young and ambitious so when the crime is discovered he pleads with Kang-jae to take the rap for him, promising that he’ll buy him that fishing boat he’s always wanted so he can go back to his home town when he gets out. Kang-jae goes home to think it over and gets a knock on the door, two policemen are standing outside only they haven’t come to arrest him – the wife he’d forgotten all about has died. Kang-jae has hit a fork in the road both literal and metaphorical and takes a road trip with his best friend to finally meet his bride in a cold and lonely place.

Failan is almost a plot device in the film that bears her name, but her story is a sad and a hard one. Orphaned and alone she finds scant kindness in her adopted country but the woman who runs the laundry where she ends up working does at least develop an almost maternal feeling for her. Failan feels great gratitude to Kang-jae for agreeing to marry her so she could stay in Korea and is convinced he must be a very good, very kind person. She thinks this largely because she never meets him.

Kang-jae is rubbish at being a gangster. Young-Sik may have a point when he says he doesn’t have the heart for it. Early on, some of the youngsters try and rope him into an extortion scheme where they’re trying to get an old granny to pay back some of her loan. Apparently the granny had once been kind to Kang-jae when he was young and hungry so he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into being menacing towards her which makes him lose face with the young toughs who think of him as a joke anyway. Reading Failan’s letter, it’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything nice about him. The first woman who ever thought he was worth anything at all and she’s already lost to him before he even knew her.

Kang-jae is not a good man, he’s an underling just muddling through without thinking. He leaps from one thing to another always thrashing around landing where falls. He has a vague ambition to get the money together to buy a fishing boat and go home, but he’s not seriously pursing it. Even the group of gangsters he’s involved with are so laughably low rent that they can’t hold on to their completely worthless territory and have to put pressure on old ladies just to get by. After reading Failan’s letter and hearing that someone believed he was better than this, Kang-jae finally wakes up and starts thinking about his life with the ultimate realisation that he doesn’t have to live like this. Unfortunately, he might have just picked the wrong day to start living the rest of his life.

In many ways Failan is a typical melodrama filled with the pain of unrealised love and Fate’s ironic sense of timing. Based on a novel by the modern Japanese master of the tearjerker Jiro Asada (Poppoya), Failan seems engineered to rend hearts with its tale of true love frustrated by time and circumstance where every ounce of hope and goodness is well and truly trodden into the ground by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, Song keeps things on the right side of schmaltzy, never racking up the misery and heartbreak beyond the threshold of plausibility. Like all the best melodramas, Failan’s sentimentality is sincere and, ultimately, moving. Another sad story of salvation arriving too late, Failan’s tale of tragic, unrealised love is an all too familiar one but effectively told it can’t fail to tear the heart.


You can currently stream Failan via Amazon Video in the US courtesy of Asian Crush, but the Korean R3 DVD and Region A blu-ray both contain English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: