The premise is tantalizing: A young drifter breaks into homes and blithely inhabits them as if they’re his own—from using the toothbrush by the bathroom sink to scrubbing the clothing left lying on the floor. But far from being a modern-day “Goldilocks,” 3-Iron is a moving, if ultimately unsatisfying, story of alienation, connection and the ways we customize our perception of reality in order to endure.
The film is at its most gripping when it tracks Tae-suk (Jae Hee)—a spiky-haired fellow with bowtie lips and kind eyes—as he performs his benign break-ins. The camera observes him as he observes his temporary residences, making for an irresistible triple voyeurism that only intensifies when he encounters Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) during one of his unauthorized house-sitting escapades. They bond silently—in fact, they never exchange words—after he rescues her from her abusive husband with the help of a 3-iron golf club. Now they’re both wandering the streets, secretly sampling the way the rest of the world lives.
But inevitably, they get caught, and the film takes a turn for the vaporous. The couple refuses to speak, at all, to police. You could forgive their passivity if it weren’t endorsed by director Kim Ki-duk. He has a metaphysical resolution for our endearing misfits, but while the mind-over-matter approach may work in the face of genuine tragedy, in this case—when the heartbreak seemed avoidable—it comes off like a lie of the mind.