Much can be said of Korean cinema. Hidden from the eyes of film critics for too long, Korean cinema has a fresh and unique character that makes it an excellent change of pace for jaded movie aficionados. In the last few decades, Korean film has come to be appreciated as a fresh new take on established cinematic themes. What is most interesting is not just the quality of the films produced in this nation, but also the variety. Everything from horror to comedy to action is handled in a manner both singularly Korean and unidentifiably unique. As a key player in this new movie source, director Kim Ki-duk has created an impressive filmography spanning many genres. He has directed 15 films since his first movie Crocodile debuted in 1996. Kim Ki-duk’s early works are typically hyper violent and often sexist; however, as his film style developed he created a common theme of actions and their consequences, accompanied with a minimalist use of dialogue. Bin-Jip, Ki-duk’s 2004 romance, is a movie of many names; it has been titled 3-Iron, Empty Homes, and Sensational Playground in various countries. This film is typical of Ki-duk’s style, yet the story itself stems from traditional tropes. The characters with the least dialogue are the main characters, with only three spoken words between them. To determine why Ki-duk chose to have his main characters mostly silent, we will analyze this film in three parts. Firstly, we will review a brief synopsis of the film’s plot, and examine the relationship between the two main characters. Next, we will review a scene in the film that demonstrates both the silence of the characters and some of the reasons they do not speak. Finally, we will examine this film’s story and why the use of silence is so effective in building the protagonists’ relationship. Let us begin with a short summary of the storyline.
Bin-Jip revolves around Tae-suk, who moves from empty home to empty home. He uses the shelter but cleans and repairs things in return. He finds a soul mate in Sun-hwa, an abused wife who wants to escape. They travel together until they happen upon a dead body, which they give a proper burial. They are imprisoned when discovered by the dead man’s son, but in time they are freed. Tae-suk, in jail longer than Sun-hwa for retaliating against abusive police, learns to be completely invisible by staying out of sight while being in the same room as someone else. He returns to Sun-hwa, totally invisible to her violent husband, and she utters her only dialogue of the film, “I love you”. The relationship between Sun-hwa and Tae-suk is at once natural and unusual. They say almost nothing to one another and yet no dialogue seems necessary. These two people seem so innately in tune with one another that there is no need for words. This is in stark contrast to the supporting characters in the film. Sun-hwa’s abusive husband, Min-gyu, yells most of his dialogue and treats Sun-hwa as nothing more than a sex object. The owners of the first home Tae-suk occupies in the movie show none of the intimate love displayed by Tae-suk and Sun-hwa. The family argues with each other endlessly, and when a toy gun is pointed at the mother’s head she dares her son to pull the trigger. Of course, she is presuming that the toy is broken; Tae-suk had fixed it, and she lives to eat her words. The dialogue in the film seems to have the sole purpose of being unnecessary and often vile. The only characters that would have something nice to say to each other choose not to speak at all. In many ways, speech between them would be unnecessary. They seem to know each other so well that they are able to interpret each other’s desires wordlessly. To demonstrate the intimacy between these silent characters and the larger implications thereof, let us closely examine a particular scene in the film.
Compassion for the Dead
At one point in the movie the central couple takes up residence in a home only to find a dead body in the kitchen. Shocked at first, they decide to give the body a proper and respectful burial. This is immediately recognizable as a very important scene as it differs drastically from the experiences the couple has in every other house. Up until this point, they have had a mostly harmless and fun experience in various abodes. By this scene, the viewer has come to accept their silence as a natural outgrowth of their incredibly close bond. They do not need to speak to each other to know what the other is thinking because they are very much “on the same page.” That is, while they cannot literally read each other’s minds, they are already aware of the other’s thoughts and concerns. No other relationship depicted in the movie has this characteristic. In fact, most of the spoken dialogue in the movie is anachronistic. When two relatives of the dead man come to the home, they are shocked and outraged to find the couple in the patriarch’s house. They ask questions, they shout accusations, but what can words possibly accomplish in this situation? There is no chance for the silent couple to answer. The relatives are so outraged that they do not give the protagonists a chance to explain the situation. The truth of the matter comes to light after the main characters are jailed for some time. The police discover the pattern of moving in to unoccupied homes and eventually find the body of the man nearby, in a shallow grave adorned with traditional burial wrappings. There was no mistreatment of the body, and no attempt to hide him. Really, what Sun-hwa and Tae-suk have done is to show an extraordinary amount of compassion for a dead man whom they do not know. This home is unique in that it is spiritually abandoned by the owner but not physically abandoned. The dead man is not living in the home, but his body still resides there. This scene is a particularly good example of the relationship between the characters because without words, they decide to care for the body in the most intimate and caring way possible, and stand unified when confronted with the consequences of their actions. Now, let us consider what makes the relationship between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa so unique.
Silence as Protest
Bin-Jip is a film so layered with importance and metaphor that an attempt to discern every hidden meaning throughout the movie would be nearly impossible. However, the silence of the protagonists is an immediately recognizable central theme in the movie. Tae-suk is shown from the very beginning of the movie to be an isolated individual. He says nothing to no-one, and has a look and demeanor that suggests he considers himself as outside of society. Even his manner of dress suggests that he is, in traditional terms, a “rebel.” But Tae-suk is rebelling from more than just society. Tae-suk has taken steps to remove himself from human culture. As Ho Ka Hang Jason writes in “Articulating Alienation: 3-Iron, Gender, and (Post)modernity)”, “the male protagonist can be read as a detached and indifferent observer who does not belong to the crowd, but at the same time someone who tries to invade his individuality into others’ private sphere.” Tae-suk resides temporarily in homes, not only using the physical protection provided by these domiciles but also the character of the homes to become, if only for one night, a part of that family. In return, he performs the nigh-angelic task of cleaning and repairing the house. Over the course of the movie, we see him transform from a naïve idealist to something more. Sun-hwa, on the other hand, has been silenced by the abuse of her husband. It is suggested that she was a popular model; revealing pictures of her are depicted in homes throughout the movie. In much the same way as Tae-suk transforms throughout the film, Sun-hwa is trying to transform herself. She resents her body of work; at one point, she carefully disassembles a picture of her into perfect squares, and then reforms the picture in a jumble. This says a lot about Sun-hwa; the picture is immediately recognizable as that of a model, even after the rearrangement, but it is visually distorted. It becomes impossible to see the woman in the rearranged picture, even though it is clearly a picture of a woman. Sun-hwa wants to be impossible to see as well, and does so by joining with Tae-suk. Their love is wordless because they are one and the same. Tae-suk seeks to disappear from society to live on his own terms. Sun-hwa wants to disappear from society to escape from an abusive relationship and her past career. Their plights are amazingly similar, and so they are able to connect on a level rarely seen in the modern world. Their love is true in the sense that they share the same soul, and no words are necessary. The idea seems abstract in our culture because speech is so inimical to us. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa never converse on a phone and never have to explain a situation they find themselves in. Because they are removed from our world, they are able to escape from the rules of our world. In the final scene of the movie, we see that they have become what they always desired; they are ghosts, and as such, they are weightless.
Kim Ki-duk is a director known for his unconventional take on established storylines. At its essence, Bin-Jip is nothing more than a love story between two people from different worlds, kept apart by society until the moment they overcome. One can see this story woven through such classics as Tristan and Isuelt and Romeo and Juliet. Ki-duk, however, builds upon this established tale to create a film that will leave moviegoers with something to think about. The utter silence between the characters in a world of constant discussion and noise is an unsettling reminder of the unnecessary things we say every day. The love between Tae-suk and Sun-hwa is so pure and simple that the viewer desperately wants them to be together. Furthermore, Tae-suk strives for more than just a simple reunification; he wants to transcend and escape reality so that he can be with Sun-hwa in more than just the traditional sense. By escaping society’s established bounds, the pair becomes ghosts who are free to explore the areas left abandoned by society. Empty homes are their source of comfort before Tae-suk is imprisoned; after he learns his unique method of escape, the entire world is their sensational playground.
(Header image created by Kristin Richey using a still from the film.)
The Aesthetics of Silence by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on world film.