In “The Bow,” Kim Ki-duk continues the twin pursuits of his recent films: allegorical storytelling and silent movie techniques. Fans worldwide will celebrate this minimalist approach, but “The Bow” is unlikely to expand that fan base. He tells his story through symbols and archetypes, and for his second consecutive film his heroine remains mute. Indeed, most of the story is communicated through the looks, gestures and body language of his three main actors.
For “The Bow,” Kim has only one set — the open sea and a decrepit fishing boat. And the key prop is a bow. The bow is first and foremost a formidable weapon. A crusty old man (Jeon Sung-hwan), who owns the boat and rents it out to day fishermen, uses this weapon to keep at bay the lascivious men who would love to paw at the doelike 16-year-old girl (Han Yeo-reum) who has lived with him on the boat for a decade. When the girl turns 17, the old man is planning a “wedding.”
Yet the bow also is a device for shamanistic fortune telling. The old man predicts the future for clients by wrapping a cloth around the girl’s wrist and having her ride in a swing. The old man uses the bow to shoot arrows that just miss the girl and land where fate determines on a faded painting of Buddha.
Finally, the bow transforms into a musical instrument. Kim’s use of Gang Eun-il’s haunting, beautiful fiddle instrumentals for these sequences brings to the film a soft, melodic spiritualism.
Trouble for the old man arrives when the young son (Seo Ji-seok) of a client attracts the girl. He is gentle where other men have been rough. When he leaves, he gives her his CD player as a gift. The old man gruffly throws this aside.
Suddenly, the girl sees her companion in a new light. He is no longer her protector but her jailer. Understanding his selfishness, she grows cautious and remote. He, in turn, tears calendar pages away, moving up the date for their “wedding.”
This change in their relationship and the return of the young man to claim the girl and bring her back into the world sets the stage for the climatic action.
For an allegorical tale in which the cast deal must deal nearly silently with the most primal emotions, the actors playing the old man and young girl accomplish quite a lot. For all his selfishness, Jeon makes it clear that the old man’s love for the girl is strong and true, a passion restrained for the proper time. And Han conveys the innocence and curiosity of a wild child who has little to guide her in human relationships.
The young man is more of a device than a character, so he often acts irrationally and ambiguously.
The climax goes on longer than it should but does contain a startlingly good way to convey a young girl’s loss of innocence. And the final climax — there are false ones — has a strong emotional impact.
Production values are as stripped down as the drama because Kim clearly is operating on small budget.
Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter
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