One aspect of Kim Ki-duk’s filmmaking that I continue to find problematic is his penchant for introducing elements of pseudo-mythical orientalism in his films: a kind of exoticized mélange of stereotypical, yin-yang images of Eastern culture that would have audiences believe that when a Buddhist priest attains enlightenment, he also acquires a certain level of physical dexterity and knowledge of hand combat techniques to earn his nth degree martial arts black belt (as in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring) or that there is a practical side to the art of Zen that, when mastered, can be applied to such nefarious activities as breaking and entering into people’s homes (and seducing the lady of the house) without ever getting caught (as in 3-Iron). When introduced unobtrusively within the context of a better developed story, they are minor irritations in an otherwise commendable work. But when inserted as integral elements to propel an underformed narrative and reinforce ambitious, ephemeral themes that, when taken into root context, sink into the abyss of rationalized (and perhaps even morally justified) transgression, then no amount of evocative visuals or impeccable, aesthetic construction can redeem this inextricably mired concoction of half-baked philosophy and herb shop spirituality.
Such is the case with his latest offering The Bow, a film that combines familiar Kim elements of intimate isolation, triangular (romantic) conflict, and surrogate acts of transcendence. The opening sequence of the old man transforming his archery bow into a traditional bowed musical instrument by inserting a small drum and a wooden bridge provides a foreshadowing of this quasi-Zen holistic balance, a heavy-handed juxtaposition that quickly transforms from the sublime to the ridiculous when a weekend fisherman asks to have his fortune read: a bizarre fusion of divining ritual and vaudeville act that involves suspending an innocent, virginal young girl (and his self-anointed future wife) on a swing that is placed on the side of the boat in front of a large painting of Buddha, and target shooting the portrait as the girl precariously swings back and forth. However, even the loopy recurrence of these carnivalesque, fortune-telling sequences could not foretell the indescribably gauche realization and vulgar, transparent symbolism of the film’s preposterous and embarrassingly laughable final scene. Rather than validating Kim’s entry into a subtler, more artistically mature phase that had been reflected in his recent films since Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring, The Bow instead regurgitates like a bloated self-parody of his earlier work.
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